The lifeboat Charterhouse went into service in October 1908, built by funds donated by past and present pupils of Charterhouse School. The Headmaster and other members of the school and governors came to Fishguard to launch the vessel.
Charterhouse was on station until 1930. During this time there were 20 service launches with 47 lives saved.
Charterhouse is 40ft (12m) long, 10.5ft across the beam, displaces 10.8 tons, and can achieve speeds of 6-7 knots.
The lifeboat is very strong, built for heavy weather and difficult sailing. The hull is made from multiple layers of crossed planks, interleaved with layers of tarred canvas. A heavy gunwhale protects the hull against ramming rocks or other boats. The structures at each end are not cabins but buoyancy tanks, designed to make the vessel self-righting. The deck, which is completely open, has wide drains so that waves leave the boat rapidly. If the boat grounds on the sea bed in the trough of a heavy wave, the keel hinges up, the rudder rises up on its axis, and the propeller is housed within a groove at the bottom of the boat, to protect it from damage. The propeller is accessible through a hatch in the deck so that stray ropes can be cut away if they get wrapped around it.
Charterhouse was the first motorised lifeboat in Wales. The 24bhp petrol engine had a 50 gallon fuel tank which could run the engine for 18 hours. The boat could also sail under two masts, and there were places for 12 oars.
The most famous of all rescues at Fishguard happened in December 1920 on a clear dark
night with heavy seas running. Coxwain John Howells, nearing 66 years of age, commanded the lifeboat Charterhouse as it sped across the bay under motor power, heading towards a three-masted schooner that had sent up a distress flare.
The distressed vessel was the Hermina, a Dutch motor schooner which was making her way to Rotterdam but had returned to Fishguard for shelter from the NW gale. Anchoring outside the breakwater her anchors had started to drag and, fearing for the safety of his crew, Capt. Vooitgedacht had ordered a flare to be fired. It was already dark when the lifeboat crew ventured out into the tremendous seas to aid the Hermina which was still dragging her anchors in the centre of the bay.
The lifeboat anchored 50 fathoms [100m] to windward of the schooner and veered alongside; then difficulties arose.
So big were the waves that they had great difficulty in securing a line to the stricken vessel. The seas were lifting the lifeboat right into the ship’s rigging and it took an hour of strenuous effort to get seven of the ten men off. The captain, chief officer and second mate refused to leavee, despite the pleading of the coxswain John Howells who knew that there would be no chance of a second lifeboat rescue and he knew that if the schooner dragged any more it would soon break up on the Needle Rock. He implored them to change their minds, but they refused and the coxswain made plans to return without them. During the rescue the lifeboat was drenched, consequently the engine reused to start and they were compelled to rely on their oards, sails, courage and seamanship to get away from the sheer cliffs behind them.
No sooner had they retrieved the anchor than the mizzen sail was caught by the wind and ripped to pieces. It became unhooked and was lost overboard. Their situation was now desperate. The coxswain ordered the second coxswain and a volunteer to set the jib sail. Tom Holmes together with Tom Davies crrawled across the bow air tank and succeeded in setting the sail despite heavy seas breaking over them With the port oars the lifeboat was manoeuvred so that it could tack away from the cliffs. They sailed for two miles on a dead beat before they had searoom to return to Goodwick. In all, it took the lifeboat three hours to return. No sooner had they got to the harbour than more flares were sent up from the Hermina. The rescue of the three men remaining aboard her now lay with the cliff rescue team as it was impossible to return by sea. As the schooner rapidly broke to pieces at Needle Rock, the third mate was washed away and drowned. The captain and his chief officer succeeded in reaching the base of the cliffs where they were rescued by William Morgan who was lowered by rope to save them.
On the first anniversary of the rescue, the Queen of the Netherlands and the Dutch Government showed their appreciation by awarding gold watches to coxswain Howells and William Morgan and silver watches to the lifeboatmen.
Mr M.L.Nicholls, secretary of the lifeboat wrote to the RNLI in his report: “It is admitted by all concerned and many old lifeboatmen that the Fishguard lifeboat has never been in such a perilous and anxious position in her history.” With reference to the setting of the jib sail when the lifeboat was forced to sail away from the wreck he reported, “but there is little doubt that the action resulted in saving the lifeboat and the men on board from being driven onto the rocks.” The RNLI awarded their highest honour, a gold medal, to Coxswain Howells for his skill and courage. Tom Davies, Tom Holmes and Robert Simpson were each awarded silver medals, and bronze medals were awarded to lifeboatmen T Perkins, J Rourke, P Whelan, T Diffin, J Gardiner, W Devereux, HW Mason, W Thomas and R Veal. William Morgan who was the hero of the cliff rescue received the thanks of the Institution on vellum.
In April 1921, Coxswain Howells and all the lifeboat crew involved with the Hermina rescue took themselves, complete with their lifeboat, on the train to London to receive their awards from the Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor).
Wreckage of the Hermina is still visible at low tide near Needle Rock, and is occasionally visited by divers.
Another notable rescue was of the 400ft steamship Leysian, which ran into the rocks near Abercastle in February 1917. It’s unclear why the accident occurred, but the night was foggy and a navigational error seems the most likely explanation.
Charterhouse was called out. There were about 130 people on board: 30 crew and 100 muleteers who had been looking after horses recently delivered from America to Belfast. The lifeboat made three return journeys between the wreck and Goodwick, before a coach was sent to Abercastle to pick up the remaining people. (As Ian Cundy of the Nautical Archaeological Society remarked: “The only replacement bus service that the RNLI ever provided!”)
The Duke of Windsor was president of the RNLI from 1919 to 1936. In 1928 he appealed to shipping companies to donate motor lifeboats. The appeal resulted in five new lifeboats, one of which was the White Star presented by the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (White Star Line). She cost £7878 to build and came to Fishguard on 28th August 1930.
Many of the Welsh lifeboats have lost crew members in the performance of their duties. Fortunately this has not happened in the history of the Fishguard station.
In 1955, one of the most bizarre launches to be recorded at any station occurred. The massive dummy whale used for the filming of Moby Dick had broken away from the tug that was towing it. The lifeboat was asked to search for it but in three hours failed to find it, so they returned to station. Moby Dick did not become a hazard to shipping because he was later washed up on the rocks near Newport. Another whale was made so that filming could continue.
Charterhouse was sold, and eventually found its way to the Lomas family in Bangor, north Wales. They refitted it as a cruising boat and renamed it the Marian.
Sixty years later in 2009, the late Phil Davies went to find it and bring it back to Fishguard.