For well over a hundred years the lifeboat station in St Abbs has been pulling swimmers, divers, and sailors from treacherous seas and dangerous conditions on a regular basis. Crews dispatched from St Abbs harbour have saved 230 people in total since opening in 1911. Since opening, the station had seen tremendous success and become a beacon of safety and security for those on and around the local coastline. However, in recent years, the crew itself has faced threats of its own.
The station was built from necessity after onlookers were forced to watch helplessly while the Danish cargo steamer S.S Alfred Erlandsen sank on the rocks off the coast in 1907. Boats in operation at the time were dispatched from the towns of Dunbar and Eyemouth, at least 2 miles from the scene.
Neither crew, travelling at full speed, could reach the foundering ship in time. The fifteen-man crew drowned just a short distance off the coast. The only survivor, the ship’s dog, was powerful enough able to swim to shore through the waves. The Great Dane became a well-loved icon for the town and people familiar with the tragedy.
Public pressure to create a station built and built until it reached critical mass. The St Abbs lifeboat station was eventually founded in 1911. The lifeboat Helen Smitten was launched, funded primarily by local business owners Usher’s brewery.
A boathouse to dispatch crews was added to the site in 1915. Fully equipped and highly skilled, the crew participated in regular call-outs and saved a huge number of lives in the water.
Seas Around St Abbs
The clear waters surrounding the coast of St Abbs are highly attractive and particularly popular amongst divers for their intense and unusual clarity. Nearby beaches draw even larger amounts of seasonal tourists. The waters off the coast are regularly filled with swimmers, kiteboarders, and amateur kayakers enjoying the warmer seasons.
The popularity of these beautiful waters and the cliff-top nature reserve directly to the north of the village presents clear risk and danger to those looking to enjoy the shores. Inexperienced travellers often venture into dangerous territory, at times without even realising.
For this reason, the lifeboat station has been consistently crewed for over a century. With well over 100 emergency launches, the boathouse more than earned its keep in the time since the Erlandsen sank in the beginning of the 20th century.
Closing St Abbs Station
Due to the high number of visitors, danger present in the surrounding waters, and historic success of the crew, it came to the surprise of many that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) announced its intent to close the St Abbs station.
Following a five year study, the RNLI concluded Eyemouth’s boat and crew could provide adequate coverage that would include the seas around St Abbs. With more modern technology, including faster boats and quicker reaction times, the RNLI decided that having two stations just two miles apart would represent an inefficient use of resources.
Public reaction to the decision was fiercely against the closure. Over 13,000 people signed a petition to reverse the decision. Station crew voiced strong objections, citing deep flaws within the RNLI study and highlighting the inevitable injury and potential death that could come from a cost-saving exercise at the expense of those using the waters.
In 2015 RNLI withdrew their equipment and support from the St Abbs boathouse.
It was public pressure again which drove support to create a new solution to build and crew the station in the modern day.
A Strong Community
A public appeal to fund and create a community-driven station was launched in response to the closure. A fund-raising campaign sought to raise £500,000 to purchase a modern lifeboat and fund the equipment and crew necessary to serve as an emergency service in the water.
The local community put their weight into supporting the project in a way rarely seen anywhere else. Visiting the town today, barely a house, business, or car in the community isn’t customised with a St Abbs lifeboat appeal badge. For a brief time, the chief topic of conversation up and down the coast was the imminent closure of the St Abbs lifeboats.
Heavy public donations and widespread support flooded in from across the community. Amongst those supporting the station was local businessman and keen sailor Boyd Tunnock.
The Lanarkshire based bakery made the single largest contribution to the cause. Funding 50% of the project in a single donation, the biscuit and cake manufacturer brought a life-saving boat and crew to St Abbs with the same community and business collaboration that saw the first boat arrive in 1911.
With such generous support and sizeable donations, a new lifeboat was swiftly purchased and returned to the water far sooner than expected. The Thomas Tunnock, named after the firm’s founder and grandfather of Boyd, launched in 2016 and serves the town and coast of St Abbs today.
Find out more about the incredible work done by St Abbs Lifeboat here: http://www.stabbslifeboat.org.uk/