Seaham Lifeboat Disaster

The painful real life story of the tragic loss, and amazing re discovery of the R.N.L.B. George Elmy:

The Alarm
At 3.55pm. on Saturday the 17th of November 1962, The Seaham lifeboat George Elmy was activated to search for the missing fishing coble (Economy). Within minutes of receiving the alert, George Elmy and her courageous crew of five, thundered down the slipway and disappeared into the darkness and the unforgiving waters of the cruel North Sea.

The Disaster
The crew had put to sea in appalling weather conditions but at about 4.30 they pulled alongside the coble and after three attempts they miraculously rescued four men and a nine year old boy. The time was then 4.51. The courageous crew then turned for home heading directly into the vicious squall. They battled against mountainous seas in an heroic effort to return to port, but at 5.20 pm, just yards from the harbour entrance they were overwhelmed by gigantic waves and capsized with the loss of the entire crew and all but one of the people that they had so bravely rescued from the stricken coble.

The Search
Shortly after capsizing, the stricken lifeboat was washed up on the beach just a few hundred yards south of the harbour with just one survivor still clinging to the upturned hull. News of the disaster spread rapidly and people flocked to the cliff tops and beaches to help in the search for survivors. Public houses emptied as men left their beer to scour the shoreline and the manager of nearby Dawdon colliery brought in staff to open up
the lamp room and canteen to provide lighting equipment and hot food for the rescuers. Lifeboats from Sunderland and Hartlepool braved the treacherous conditions as they fought their way to the scene of the disaster and an Avro Shackleton search plane was scrambled from R.A.F. Coastal Command at St.Mawgan. The deafening roar of it's engines could be heard as it circled the area over and over again dropping flares that briefly turned the night sky into day.


An RAF. Avro Shackleton search plane similar to the type that searched for the George Elmy

The next morning in the cold light of day, the true horror of what had taken place was there for ail to see. For there, washed up on the shore, just a few hundred yards south of the harbour, lay the pitiful sight of the bruised and battered wreck of the vanquished George Elmy.

The following morning, Sunday 18th. Nov.

Later History
Following the tragic events of the previous day, efforts were made to right the lifeboat and the full extent of the damage began to emerge. She had been ravaged by the relentless storm and had suffered extensive damage from stem to stern. Little is known about The George Elmy after that fateful day and the people of Seaham were unaware that she underwent extensive repairs and returned to service with the RNLI., first with the reserve fleet before moving on to Poole in Dorset where she served with distinction until her decommissioning in 1972. The George Elmy then slipped into quiet obscurity.

On station in Poole harbour, circa 1969.

She re-emerged in April 2009 when she was spotted for sale on ebay by a Seaham man who had a keen interest in local history and who was a founder member of The East Durham Heritage Group. She had been converted into a fishing vessel and was laid up in Holyhead neglected and forlorn.

15th May 2009, George Elmy returns to Seaham by road.

The amazing discovery was brought to the attention of the other members of the group and once her identity had been properly established, they made the decision to go ahead and purchase the boat. Their aim, to bring home the once proud George Elmy and restore to her former glory. On the 15th of May 2009 she arrived in Seaham and the first step on what proved to be a four year journey to restoration had been taken.

Restoration Progress

After a spell in Seaham's south dock followed by a further spell at an indoor storage facility, the boat was transported by road to the river Tyne and the premises of master boat builder Fred Crowell who brought a wealth of knowledge and a lifetime of experience to the restoration project.

George Elmy is lowered gently onto the cradle at the end of the boat builders slipway.

Once the boat was sitting securely within it's cradle, she was hauled slowly up the slipway into the boathouse which was to be her home for the next two years. The hull was stripped back to reveal the full extent of the ravages of time and the keel was cleaned and de-rusted. Numerous new ribs were crafted and fixed into position whilst rotten and damaged planking was replaced. Two previously acquired diesel engines were being
overhauled in readiness for fitting when the work schedule would permit and a milestone was reached with the construction of a new mahogany deck shelter which once manoeuvred into position, gave the vessel it's distinctive lifeboat appearance once again.

Distinctive Mahogany Deck Shelter

Launch Day, 14th March 2013
After four long years of fundraising, planning and painstaking restoration, the now pristine George Elmy is carefully lowered down the slipway into the waters of the river Tyne before sailing up river to Royal quays Marina where she would remain until arrangements were finalised for her homecoming.

George Elmy accompanied by R.N.L.B. Spirit of Northumberland head south, bound for Seaham Harbour.

The Return to Seaham
George Elmy in company with the Spirit of Northumberland and a growing flotilla of other craft sailed south to Seaham followed by storm clouds and torrential rain. But the sea remained calm and the threatened storm never materialised but as she drew close to her final destination the gathered throng erupted into a rousing welcome of cheering and rapturous applause. It was as if the whole town had turned out to welcome the long lost George Elmy home. She had come full circle to complete the journey that had begun at ten past four on Saturday the 17th of November 1962. Approaching the harbour bar for the first time in over fifty years

For three months the boat was berthed at Royal Quays where final adjustments were made to the engines and fuel systems and a trip up river to the Tyne Bridge was arranged to test the boats handling and performance. Everything went according to plan enabling the project management team to give the go ahead to set date for the return. On Sunday the 23rd of June 2013, amid an air of great excitement, the crew and members of the East Durham Heritage Group assembled for a safety drill and briefing before the George Elmy put to sea once more under the command of Coxswain David Wallace, destination Seaham Harbour. The fulfilment of a dream was at last in sight.


The article above was received from Phil Styles of the Avro Shackleton 'Growler' Association, thanks also to
James Cowan and Brian Withers