RNLI at 200: Three daring cruise ship rescues

As the RNLI celebrates a remarkable 200th anniversary, we've plunged into the archives to uncover three daring cruise ship tales. Undertaken by RNLI volunteers in the face of abject danger, these heroic and selfless rescues showcase the skill and bravery that radiates from two centuries of saving lives at sea

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Never has there been a finer blueprint for humanity. Providing an unwavering commitment to saving lives at sea, based on a rich heritage spanning over 200 years, the lifeboat charity operates a fleet of vessels manned by dedicated volunteers who selflessly risk their lives to rescue those in peril on the water.

Whether it's a distress call in stormy conditions or a stranded vessel in calm waters, the RNLI's bravery and expertise shine through; making them a beacon of hope for mariners around the UK and Ireland.

Supported by generous donations, the RNLI also educates communities about water safety, ensuring that everyone can enjoy the sea with confidence. When you book a cruise, knowing that the RNLI is there to safeguard your journey around the British coast adds an invaluable layer of calm, making your maritime adventure all the more enjoyable.

And should things go wrong, you can rest assured that the RNLI is never far way. Just to prove that notion, we've delved into the archives to uncover a trilogy of daring cruise ship rescues – straight from the pages of history, but with the same unbeatable mantra that remains the core of modern RNLI endeavours.

The SS Rohilla during quieter times, before being drawn into Naval action and a grizzly fate. Credit: Wikicommons

HMHS Rohilla – 1914 – Saltwick Nab, by Whitby

In 2013, the RNLI came into the possession of a remarkable object. A battered trunk had washed up on shore and found itself listed on eBay. Presumed lost ever since a hospital ship faltered close to Whitby, the trunk was a poignant reminder of an RNLI rescue from 1914 – involving no fewer than six lifeboats, one of which sailed over 40 miles to assist.

Still bearing its contents, as well as faded luggage labels with the name of Mary Roberts, the trunk had belonged to a nurse serving aboard HMHS Rohilla when the ship found itself in serious difficulty. Intriguingly, Mary had been a former survivor of the infamous Titanic disaster.

As Whitby Lifeboat Museum prepared a curation on the demise of HMHS Rohilla, Mary’s trunk emerged almost exactly a century later. The museum purchased the trunk for £50. It was a striking and timely arrival; almost as though the spirits had planned it.

Built by Harland and Wolff shipbuilders in Belfast, SS Rohilla commenced service with the British Indian Steam Navigation Company in 1906. Named after an Afghan tribe seeking refuge within India during the 18th century, SS Rohilla undertook eight steady years of passage between Britain and India.

The wreckage of HMHS Rohilla, with the RNLI on hand as the rescue continued through testing conditions. Credit: RNLI/Twitter

Rohilla’s peaceful existence was sharply interrupted by the First World War. The cruise liner was requisitioned for trooping before being reassigned as a hospital ship – HMHS Rohilla – in August 1914.

Rohilla’s most notable patient was Prince Albert, grandson of Queen Victoria and later King George V, who developed appendicitis while serving as a midshipman on HMS Collingwood. With haste, HMHS Rohilla transported Prince Albert to Aberdeen where he was treated successfully.

Only a few months later, in October 1914, HMHS Rohilla ran aground on Saltwick Nab by Whitby and was suddenly in dire need of urgent assistance herself. The impact was so severe that it fractured the noble vessel and her stern collapsed.

The converted hospital ship had been on route to Dunkirk with 229 people on board. Many were British and Belgian soldiers, injured in battle within Northern France, as well as medical staff and crew. Rohilla became stuck only 600 yards from the shore, but perilous weather raged all around the stranded ship. The RNLI were called but treacherous conditions prevented the Whitby lifeboat from being able to immediately launch.

What unfolded next was nothing short of a remarkable rescue effort. With first light, Whitby’s other lifeboat – John Fielden – was hauled over an 8-foot wall on the east pier. Over two approaches, this lifeboat managed to rescue 35 passengers.

Many of the crew attempted to swim ashore, but dozens were drowned in the surf. Credit: Reddit/Facebook

Another lifeboat – William Riley – from nearby Upgang, was hauled over land before being lowered down a sheer cliff of 200 feet in the hope of assisting. Scarborough’s Queensbury lifeboat and the Teesmouth lifeboat also arrived but neither were able to help, the latter sustaining damage in the awful conditions.

Finally, having sailed over 40 miles in the dark and through extremely hazardous waters, Tynemouth’s motorised lifeboat – the Henry Vernon – arrived and was able to bring 50 of Rohilla’s desperate survivors back to shore.

Although the RNLI regards the Rohilla incident as one of its worst services, six lifeboats and their courageous RNLI crewmen worked for over fifty hours to rescue 144 people in utterly appalling circumstances. The captain of Rohilla and all the nurses survived, including Mary Roberts.

During the Titanic disaster of 1912, Mary had been rescued by RMS Carpathia. Six weeks later, she began work on the RMS Majestic before transferring to the HMHS Rohilla when war broke out.

Brought ashore by Whitby’s No.2 lifeboat John Fielden, Mary survived two maritime disasters. Afterwards, Mary stated that what had happened on Rohilla had been a much more distressing situation to endure than Titanic. Even to this day, the Roberts family continue to acknowledge the heroic efforts of the RNLI that brought Mary home safe.

SS Suevic met with a spectacular series of events, but the RNLI worked with gusto to save lives. Credit: RNLI

SS Suevic – 1907 – Lizard Point, by Cornwall

The largest number of people ever saved in an RNLI rescue occurred in 1907, when 456 individuals were safely brought ashore by lifeboat crews. The survivors had been travelling aboard SS Suevic, a Jubilee-class steamship belonging to the White Star Line, which had plunged into difficulty courtesy of foul weather, thick fog and navigational error.

Launched in 1900, SS Suevic worked the Liverpool to Sydney route alongside her sister ship SS Runic. As well as ferrying passengers to Australia, the single-funnelled Suevic briefly served in the Boer War, carrying troops to and from South Africa.

In 1903, a young officer named Charles Lightoller was assigned to Suevic. He would later go on to become the second officer aboard Titanic. Four years later, in March 1907, SS Suevic was approaching Plymouth. The ship had 382 passengers on board as well as a stacked cargo bay and crew, who were struggling to navigate in strong winds and heavy rain.

The body of water that Suevic was traversing was well-renowned for being hazardous, with numerous sharp rocks awaiting to catch unsuspecting ships out. The crew opted to make use of the lighthouse on Lizard Point in Cornwall in combination with an estimated position. This strategy may well have guided them safely, if it had not been for a notable miscalculation.

Good luck explaining that to the insurance company... Credit: Wikicommons

Instead of being at her estimated position, SS Suevic was actually 16 miles ahead and far closer to land than anyone realised. Shortly afterwards, breaking waves were sighted ahead of the bow and Captain Jones promptly ordered a hard-a-port. Yet it was too late.

Progressing at full speed, SS Suevic ran violently aground on Maenheere Reef, where rugged rocks dug deep into her hull. Several attempts were made to free the ship from her predicament but all to no avail.

Passengers were initially instructed to head for the lifeboats but, when it became apparent that the ship was not in danger of sinking, they were instead taken back inside to shelter while outside assistance was sought. Distress rockets were fired from aboard Suevic while the ship’s horn rang out in the gloom. A rescue attempt was soon prompted as nearby villagers gathered by the shore.

Two RNLI lifeboats headed out to the stricken Suevic while another three were on the way. In the dense fog, the first of these modest wooden crafts collided against the side of the White Star liner. In a howling gale and the pitch black, this must have unnerved the brave fishermen who were serving as RNLI volunteers in a basic, open lifeboat.

Lizard Point volunteers set new standards for other RNLI crews to follow. Credit: RNLI

The sun rose and, with it, so too did the hope of success. Passengers began to make their way down ladders that hung from Suevic’s side, many being instructed to jump when a lifeboat rose towards them atop an incoming wave.

When petrified children could not follow these instructions, some of the RNLI crewmen climbed the ladders to collect them before skilfully dropping them into the arms of fellow crew members below.

The crews from Lizard, Cadgwith, Coverack and Porthleven worked in tandem to collect everyone on board SS Suevic. When a lifeboat became full, it headed back for shore while another took its place. Each round involved rowing four miles out to the liner, collecting passengers and then another four miles of a return row back.

The lifeboats aimed for Polpeor Cove, where fires guided them in before warming those who were dropped off on the shore.

This process continued for 16 hours and became the institution’s largest rescue. In all, 456 men, women and children were brought ashore by the Cornish RNLI crews. A further 68 people were rescued by tugs sent to the scene by White Star. Not a single life was lost.

Some passengers were put up in the cottages of local villagers, while others were offered hotel accommodation in Falmouth; paid for by White Star Line. Afterwards, six silver RNLI medals for gallantry were awarded. Of these, four went to the RNLI lifeboat crews while two more went to George Anderson and William Adams of SS Suevic.

Cunard's RMS Lusitania caused the deaths of almost 1200 people, but the RNLI helped to save countless others. Credit: Picryl

RMS Lusitania – May 1914 – Old head of Kinsdale, County Cork

One of the most catastrophic maritime events of the First World War was the appalling sinking of RMS Lusitania.

The Cunard ship was well-known and fondly regarded by many on both sides of the Atlantic, as she worked her transatlantic route with aplomb during the early 1900s.

As the conflict of the Great War broke out, Lusitania maintained steady passage between Great Britain and the United States. Deemed a mere merchant vessel, the ship’s official cargo included mail and freight, alongside a regular quota of passengers.

Naturally, her wartime voyages attracted understandable concern, but much hope was pinned on the fact that, at that time, there lay a long-standing respect for civility and peacetime vessels were not to be deliberately targeted. Thus, in early May 1914 - as the ship left New York Pier 54 - Lusitania carried her largest eastbound passenger list of the year.

A few days later, on May 7, 1914, Lusitania suddenly foundered only 11 miles from the Irish coast, after a torpedo strike heralding from the German submarine SM U-20. Tragic shock and consequential dynamics immediately reverberated around the world.

RMS Lusitania was the Cunard flagship of her time. Her bow still points towards the harbour that she never reached. Credit: Wikicommons

Lusitania’s downfall occurred in an abrupt timeframe of only 18 minutes. Among the ship’s passengers and crew, barely anyone on board had possessed the time to react appropriately. What unfolded instead was a desperate attempt to escape the ship by any means possible.

Upon the torpedo’s devastating impact, Lusitania had developed a severe list. This, combined with uncoordinated efforts in an ultimately unnerving scenario upon deck, meant that only six of the ship’s lifeboats were afloat after the great liner herself had descended into the depths. An unnecessary loss of life followed, totalling 1,197 individuals.

It was a moment that held strong potential to change the overall narrative and very outcome of the war itself. Anti-German riots broke out in London, President Woodrow Wilson came under pressure to thrust America into the war and ‘Avenge the Lusitania’ propaganda campaigns kickstarted in numerous countries.

More than a century later, this disaster is still remembered and discussed. What is less known, is that the RNLI were among the many who rushed out to assist the targeted liner.

The RMS Lusitania floundered 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. Credit: Wikicommons

The naval station at Queenstown had received Lusitania’s distress call and sent the RNLI’s Queenstown lifeboat James Stevens No.20 out to assist. The lifeboat was motorless and was towed to the scene by a tug.

Another RNLI lifeboat, the Kezia Gwilt and her crew of 14, also made their way over from Courtmacsherry. They too were motorless and rowed the full 11 miles out from Barry’s Point to where RMS Lusitania, in her distress, had last been seen. The Courtmacsherry crew spent six hours on the scene, doing what they could in the horrific aftermath.

Between local tugs, trawlers and assistance from the RNLI, 761 survivors were brought back to the Irish coast. Many of the deceased were carefully retrieved from the water.

Among the survivors was a lady by the name of Amy Pearl. Amy had been travelling on RMS Lusitania with her husband Major Frederic Warren Pearl, their four children and two nannies. The family became separated during the sinking.

Several RNLI lifeboats rowed for hours upon end to save souls from RMS Lusitania. Credit: RNLI

Just prior to the impact, Amy had been taking coffee on deck as they anticipated arrival at Liverpool. As she did so, Amy looked down and saw a silver streak speeding through the water. She knew exactly what it was and then chaos ensued.

Her son Stuart and daughter Audrey were placed into one of Lusitania’s lifeboats but no-one else could follow due to a lack room in that particular craft. Shortly after, Amy and one of the nannies found themselves in the water, before being hoisted up to safety by an RNLI lifeboat. Amy’s husband Frederick also survived.

A few days later, the couple were reunited with their two surviving children, Stuart and Audrey. Sadly, their other two little girls and second nanny had not made it.

In the years that followed, Amy was reluctant to speak of the disaster. However, whenever she sailed, Amy always travelled with Cunard. In reciprocation and keen to look after them, Cunard always transported the family at a discounted rate.

Despite her silence on the Lusitania, Amy was a keen fundraiser for the RNLI throughout the rest of her life. Later, her daughter Audrey - who had been three months old when the disaster had occurred - kept that same support for the institution alive.

The RNLI visit the wreck site of RMS Lusitania every year using advanced technology to lay memorial wreaths. Credit: RNLI

Audrey funded two lifeboats for the New Quay station in Wales. These were named the Amy Lea and the Audrey LJ. Intriguingly, almost exactly a century after the sinking of the Lusitania, the Audrey LJ lifeboat became involved in the rescue of another little girl.

In July 2014, Eira Harvey had got into difficulty on Aberaeron Beach when her foot became trapped between rocks that formed part of a sea defence. Unable to free herself from the structure, Eira had become stuck just as the high spring tide was coming in. Within an hour, the rocks would be completely submerged.

The Audrey LJ and the New Quay crew navigated close to the rocks and held the lifeboat steady while Eira was instructed on how to cut her wellies with scissors in-order to free her foot and allow the RNLI to take her to safety. It is remarkable to ponder how a Lusitania survivor’s kind donation then went on to save another life in 2014. Almost as though the spirits had intended, to mark 100 years of the sinking.

To this day, the Lusitania disaster continues to be marked by memorial services scattered across multiple locations. These include services at the Lusitania Museum at the Old Head of Kinsdale, within Liverpool where Lusitania was registered with Cunard and over the wreck site where the Courtmacsherry crew and their lifeboat lay a wreath every year.

The RNLI lays a yearly wreath in memory of those lost with RMS Lusitania. Credit: Pinterest/Facebook
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About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. When partaking in work for RNLI, Land Rover or RRM, Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.