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Launch the lifeboat

Tragedy at sea

by Laurence Chilcott

Suitable for Key Stage 2


To recount the story of the loss of a lifeboat and her crew in order to appreciate the courage of those who are willing to risk their lives to save others.

Preparation and materials

  • Gather images of lifeboats in rough seas and have the means to display them during the assembly (check copyright).
  • Ensure that pupils know something of the role of the RLNI in advance of the assembly.
  • Find a recording of the hymn ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’ and have the means to play it at the end of the assembly (check copyright).


On average, more than 20 people are rescued by members of the RNLI every day.  Whenever a lifeboat is launched, the crew members face unknown dangers, but they are prepared to risk their own lives to rescue those in difficulty at sea. On very rare occasions – especially in the past, when lifeboats and equipment were not as sophisticated as they are today – tragedies have happened and even a lifeboat has not been able to win against the strength and power of the sea. Today’s assembly is about one such occasion.

Few people in the seaside town of Porthcawl in South Wales today remember the night of 23 April 1947, but those who do recall a night of hurricane-force winds and mountainous seas. More than that, they recall the tragedy that befell a ship off its rocky Sker Point.

The SS Samtampa was making its way to Newport, some 20 miles east of Porthcawl, but, due to the deteriorating weather, the captain decided to anchor off the coast of Porthcawl until conditions improved. Unfortunately, the anchor cables were unable to hold the ship and she started drifting towards the rocks. At just after half past four in the afternoon, she sent out an SOS message requesting assistance. By quarter past five, she reported that she had grounded on rocks and was breaking up.

The Mumbles’ lifeboat, Edward, Prince of Wales, was launched, but, as it was moving out to sea, the crew noticed that a Morse code message from the lifeboat station was being flashed to them using a lamp. The message gave them an update on the Samtampa’s position, but, because visibility was so poor in the appalling conditions, the crew members were unable to read it and had to return to the station to get the update. It was ten past five before the lifeboat finally set out for Porthcawl, some 12 miles away from the Mumbles.

While the lifeboat fought its way through the tumultuous seas, the coastguards at Porthcawl tried to fire a rocket line to the ship in order to get men off by breeches buoy. Three times they tried, but firing into the wind limited the range of the rockets and, in any case, the Samtampa was too far out for the lines to reach and they all fell short.

Meanwhile, back at the Mumbles, Eileen Thomas was frantic with worry. Her husband William was bowman of the Mumbles’ lifeboat and he had put to sea with the rest of the crew on that terrible day. Over and over in her mind she recalled how she had begged her husband not to go. She knew that while sailors were in danger at sea the lifeboat’s crew members were duty-bound to do what they could to rescue them, but she had a premonition that her husband would not return alive. She didn’t go to bed that night. She just stayed up worrying and waiting for news.

As dawn broke the following day, it became clear that Eileen’s worst fears had been realized. The upturned lifeboat was found on rocks off Sker Point. On approaching the Samtampa, it had been struck by a massive wave, which threw the crew out into the raging seas. William Thomas and his seven other crew members died. Sadly, the same fate befell the crew of the Samtampa as the ship broke up on the rocks. All 41 crew members‘ lives had been lost.

Modern lifeboats are often self-righting to prevent such a disaster happening, but lifeboat men and women still put their own lives at risk in order to rescue people in danger at sea. They don’t do it for the money – the crew members are volunteers. They do it because they love the sea and care about the safety of people in or around it.

Time for reflection

Think of those who regularly face danger in their work – firefighters, mountain rescue teams, bomb disposal experts, the police and so on. Consider the qualities that are required in the jobs they do.

Consider how difficult times in life are often described as ‘storms’. Just like storms in nature, they cause concern and anxiety at the time, but they eventually subside. Calm is restored and the sun shines again. 

Father God,
We give thanks for all who risk their lives to rescue those who are in trouble. 
We thank you for their courage and the sacrifices they make.
We pray for their families, who often worry about the danger they may be facing. 
Help us to meet the storms of life with courage, trusting that you will be alongside us. 


Recording of the hymn ‘Eternal Father, strong to save’

Publication date: April 2014   (Vol.16 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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