13 April 2018

1938: A double disaster in St Ives

Wrecked on the rocks at Porthmeor Beach, a steamship and her 23 crew are in serious trouble. The St Ives lifeboat is powering to the scene, but first it must overcome a terrible gale and mountainous waves.

Friday 28 January 1938: Panamanian steamship Alba finishes loading her cargo of coal and battening down the hatches for her voyage from Barry Docks in Wales to Civitavecchia in Italy.

Her departure is delayed due to bad weather but, 2 days later, she slips her mooring lines and gets underway.

A severe storm is blowing

As the Alba steams down the Bristol Channel, the weather worsens. By the time she reaches Land’s End, a severe north-westerly storm is blowing and she’s been battling the weather for over 24 hours. The conditions are now so bad, she can’t safely round the peninsula.

Captain Horvath turns back and, after consulting his charts, decides St Ives Bay is the only option for shelter. Visibility was very poor in the darkness and driving rain but, as they neared St Ives Bay, they could see Godrevy Lighthouse between the squalls.

The ship’s lookouts also see lights above Porthmeor Beach and report them to the captain. He orders the ship’s anchors to be prepared, thinking they have reached the shelter of St Ives Bay. In reality, they are still off Porthmeor Beach.

The Alba, pounded by waves at Porthmeor BeachPhoto: RNLI
The Alba, pounded by waves at Porthmeor Beach

Alba strikes the rocks

The Alba turns head-to-wind and the anchor is let go. But it’s too late, the stern of the ship strikes the rocks off St Ives. Captain Horvath and his officers quickly realise the ship is aground, and sound the ship’s steam whistle in distress. The steamship is now broadside to the surf and being battered by huge waves.

Many St Ives residents hear the continuous distress signal from the Alba – including Thomas Cocking, Coxswain of the St Ives lifeboat.

Coxswain Thomas Cocking in March 1938Photo: RNLI
Coxswain Thomas Cocking in March 1938

He hurries to the lifeboat station and fires two maroons to summon the rest of the crew. The lifeboat, Caroline Parsons, launches in record time and rounds St Ives Head in mountainous seas. Later on, some of the crew describe the waves as being 40ft high.

The lights of the stricken steamship are soon sighted, as the area is well-illuminated by car headlights and searchlights. The police and ambulance service rush to the scene, as well as hundreds of onlookers.

Coxswain Thomas Cocking skilfully manoeuvres the lifeboat towards the leeward side of the steamship to gain shelter from the enormous breaking waves. He positions the Caroline Parsons alongside the Alba and all 23 of the crew climb down the pilot ladder and into the lifeboat. Once they’re onboard, Cocking tells the captain to order his men to lie down on the deck to help stabilise the lifeboat.

At the mercy of the sea

As the lifeboat pulls away from the steamship, a huge wave strikes her broadside on. The Caroline Parsons capsizes and 32 men are thrown into the raging seas. This terrible spectacle is witnessed by the people gathered on land, many of whom are related to members of the lifeboat crew.

The St Ives lifeboat,Caroline Parsons, is wrecked on the rocksPhoto: RNLI
The St Ives lifeboat,Caroline Parsons, is wrecked on the rocks

The Caroline Parsons is a modern lifeboat, and self-rights within seconds. Three members of the lifeboat crew cling onto the boat and stay onboard as she rolls onto an even keel. The engine won’t restart but the men help the rest of the crew and most of the shipwrecked sailors back aboard.

Without the engine, the lifeboat is now at the mercy of the sea. It’s being blown towards the rocks and driven ashore. The coxswain tells the men not to jump overboard because they will be ‘dashed to pieces’.

The St Ives crew in 1937, from left: Jack Cocking, Richard Stevens, William Peters, Thomas Cocking, Matthew Barber, John Thomas. Photo: RNLI
The St Ives crew in 1937, from left: Jack Cocking, Richard Stevens, William Peters, Thomas Cocking, Matthew Barber, John Thomas.

Seeing the lifeboat being driven onto the rocks prompts hundreds of onlookers to scramble down onto the beach and help rescue the men onboard. One brave man gets into the water to get a line to the lifeboat. After several attempts, he succeeds. The line is secured to the lifeboat and, one by one, the sailors and crew come along the line and make it safely ashore, dragged from the surf by the hordes of waiting rescuers.

The lifeboat crew make it to shore unscathed. Captain Horvath has a broken leg, and most of the Alba’s crew are cut and badly bruised – but grateful to be alive. Five of the Alba’s crew haven't made it back to the lifeboat after the capsize and are still missing. Eventually, three bodies wash ashore but the other two are never seen again.

The wreck of the Alba

The next day, the full extent of the disaster can be seen in daylight. The Alba is still broadside to the surf and being battered by huge waves, and the lifeboat is very badly damaged, lying perched on the rocks. She’s set on fire and burned, as is the tradition with wrecked lifeboats.

The wreck of the Alba becomes quite an attraction, bringing many visitors to the town. Its cargo of coal keeps the residents of St Ives warm for many years and people are often seen ‘fishing for coal’ down by the wreck.

Written by Robin Langford, Mechanic at St Ives Lifeboat Station

Coxswain Thomas Cocking was awarded a Silver Medal for his bold leadership – and his eight crew members were given Bronze Medals for their part in the heroic rescue. Find out more about our lifesaving heritage and how we keep our stories of courage alive.