Lifeboatman John Cook

Joys and triumphs, tragedies and sorrows, are inevitably part of a Lifeboatman’s memories. For John Cook, retired second coxswain of Yarmouth Lifeboat, his wall of photographs represent all that and more.

John comes from family traceable to the Island from 1640. He grew up in Yarmouth, attended Yarmouth school and was apprenticed to a Freshwater builder, Downers. He joined Hayles boatyard, under Harrold Hayles, then coxswain of the lifeboat, and later was to have his own chandlers business in Yarmouth. It is the sense of belonging to a community to which he attributes his service to the lifeboat: “You put something back,” he says, simply.

Every crewman in one particular photo from 1961 prompts a memory or a story. It was the job of the engineer (the only paid member of the crew at that time) to keep supplies of cigarettes, whisky and rum on board to calm the nerves of the rescued. The odd nip was taken by the crew.

An example of the state-of-the-art technology were the cans of soup, which heated up automatically thanks to a phosphorus insert. Another was a flare which lit up a whole area for night searching. “We didn’t have radar. It was all a bit seat of your pants.”

At 16 he became a crew member, and eventually went on to be bowman. On rare occasions when the engine failed, he and another youngster were sent down below to crank a handle to prime the engine – seasickness wasn’t unknown at such times. Things had moved on by the time of John’s next boat, the Earl and Countess Howe. It was the first small boat to be fitted with radar – though it was the electric frying pan that John remembers with greater affection.

Back to his photographs and a dramatic image of a wave tower being bashed by wild seas. One day in October 5th, 1976, John, then second-coxswain, had to get a scratch crew together in the absence of his coxswain to rescue a boat called Snowgoose, being driven into the tower’s base at Barton near Christchurch. “It was very rough and not having all the navigational aids there are today, we needed a helicopter to guide us to the distressed boat.”

But as the boat was being driven into shore at Barton, the lifeboat itself was in jeopardy. John knew he had to take a chance: “On the rise of the wave two of my fellows jumped up on his cockpit, grabbed him and pulled him onboard.  I bore away quickly, and just had time to yell “hang on!” to the crew before an enormous wave came over us.”

The crew survived but as they pulled away they saw the sailor’s boat being smashed to bits on the shore. The man, who had been on a round-the-world trip, had not a stitch to his name, and John lent him a tenner. “I never got it back!” he smiles.

Further round on John’s wall of memories is an upturned boat beaten by the surf. This was the inshore rescue boat. “It was one of the first all-rubber boats. We’d had a call to say a chap had fallen from the cliff at Scratchel’s Bay. We knew he was likely to be seriously injured so my brother Chris and I stopped to pick up Dr Harrison Broadbent on the way.

“The swell that day was huge and as the boat went into the bay it got picked up and turned over. The doctor was thrown onto the beach, but my brother was trapped under the boat. I grabbed my brother’s hand just as a huge surge came and took the boat out to sea.”

Now the three of them were stranded with the man, who was in fact dead, on the beach. The lifeboat came, but the seas caused the nylon anchor robe to be entangled round the port propeller, anchoring the boat and making it impossible to help John and the others. A helicopter was scrambled but the rotors were too close to the cliff to reach the beach. So in the end it was the cliff rescue team who hauled the three men up one by one. “We had no helmets, stones were falling constantly …” says John. “Before we were rescued they had dragged the body as high up the shingle as possible to be collected in quieter seas the next day.”

He, his brother and the Dr Broadbent were honoured for that act of bravery, an award presented by Sir Charles Baring, chairman of the IoW RNLI. Brushes with death came in all shapes and sizes. In 1970 the lifeboat was called to take fire crew out to a burning oil tanker, the Pacific Glory, off St Catherine’s, and as they approached the wall of heat and fumes John had to reassure a petrified young crewman that the whole thing wasn’t about to blow up. More than the fear is the memory of the burnt bodies of the Chinese crew, still clinging to the railings. “You seem to take the harrowing things in your stride when you’re young,” says John. “I’ll never forget the stench of death.”

It is not a little embarrassing, when you are crew of the lifeboat, to have to be rescued yourself. One Cowes week he and a friend took out a motor boat, the Pentagon, and when steaming along by Saltmead one of the engines died. “I looked below and found a foot of water,” says John. They didn’t get far in their attempt to reach shore before the other engine died, so John decided they must sink the boat and in turning it over, he engineered the boat to trap a huge bubble of air, for buoyancy.

“We sent up a flare, we heard the maroon sound in Yarmouth and there we were sitting on the upturned boat thinking we’d soon be ok. But before the lifeboat got to us it turned back. We found out later the crew thought the flare was someone having a beach barbeque in Newtown.”

In the event, one Dave Kennett (later to be a crew member and coxswain) who was on a fishing trip, saw the flare and came over to investigate. John laughs as he remembered the incredulity with which Dave found them, floating on the upturned boat: “ ‘What you doing there?’”

“It was such a mix of fun and seriousness,” he says. “Through the lifeboat I’ve met the Queen and Prince Philip – on the day the Queen took her first hovercraft trip. I’ve met Lord Mountbatten, who asked why I wasn’t wearing a hat and had one issued to me the next day; and I’ve been to a Garden Party at the Palace.”

“I’ve had some cracking good times.”