RNLI - Barmouth Lifeboat Station



Many lifeboats earn their place in the history of the station in the affections of the town and of the crew, but if I was asked which of Barmouth's lifeboats was my favourite, it would have to be The Chieftain. She served in Barmouth for 33 years and is the one that everyone remembers.

She arrived in Barmouth on 11 March 1949.   A 35' 6” (10.6m) Liverpool class boat, with two 18hp petrol engines, built by Groves and Gutterage of Cowes at a cost of £9,943. Her top speed with her original engines was just 7.25 knots.

She was named on 6 July the year she arrived, and just 3 weeks later, on 29 July, she was out on her first shout. An aircraft had crashed into the sea 6 miles off Barmouth and The Chieftain set out in strong onshore winds and a rough sea. The crew located the wreckage and found the pilot clinging to his inflatable dinghy, but there was no sign of the co-pilot. They searched the area and, sadly, eventually found his body which they recovered and brought ashore.

Many of her shouts were in heavy weather, and she was a wet boat in such conditions, providing very little shelter for her crew. Before even leaving harbour the bowman got a soaking, just from launching down the slip. One thing was certain, she had the full confidence of the men who took her to sea, and she did everything that they asked of her.

During her 33 year-long career in Barmouth, The Chieftain worked hard, when boating for pleasure was beginning to become a popular pastime and the fishing fleet was about to be at its busiest.  She was called out 113 times during her working life, which is very nearly as many as all of her predecessors combined, and she has been credited with carrying her crew to save 132 lives, more than twice as many as any earlier boat.

During the 50s and 60s and well into the 70s, the lifeboat crews were summoned to a launch by the firing of maroons from the lifeboat house by the bridge.  The sound of these maroons could be heard for miles and the whole town was alerted and dogs howled as the crew made their way to the boathouse. The Chieftain always had a good audience as crowds thronged the quayside to see her launch and return.

One thing that many with connections to the lifeboat remember is the distinctive drone of The Chieftain's engines, which could be heard and identified from miles away. Rescued sailors often commented that they knew help was on the way because they could hear the gradually increasing throb from the approaching lifeboat long before it was in sight. Family members of the crew would listen out for the sound of their returning relatives; children lying in bed, reassured that father would soon be safely home.

Both my father and my husband both served on The Chieftain, so she played a large part in my life.  So much so that my husband even went out on my wedding day!

Half way through the wedding reception in June 1968, the maroons went off and several of the guests, also lifeboat men, left to go to the aid of a local fishing boat in trouble.  ‘Hang on lads wait for me!’ shouted my husband of a few hours and dashed to join them complete with top hat, tails and buttonhole!

Yes, The Chieftain was certainly a part of the town – a character in her own right until in 1982 when, after 33 years of service we bade her a fond farewell, and she was fittingly replaced by a Princess!  She was replaced by the Rother class lifeboat Princess of Wales in 1982, and was retired with honour.
The Chieftain was to have been part of a proposed lifeboat museum further up the coast, but this idea did not take off and she was found some years later lying in a state of disrepair on the east coast.   Her new owner Tony Gatt, restored to her former glory and, in June 2011 he proudly brought her back to visit Barmouth, to the delight of many of her crew and friends.   And The Chieftain became something of a minor celebrity when she was one of the boats chosen to take part in the Queen's Jubilee Pageant on the Thames in 2012.

And what is more, she is still very much alive. 

She was put up for sale again in 2019 but it wasn’t long before the Barmouth crew were contacted by the new owner, Richard Judge, to let us know that The Chieftain had relocated to the Kent coast.  Richard had just retired after 38 years on the crew of Whitstable RNLI, his son is on the present crew, and his brother is LOM. So he is still very much connected to the lifeboat service.  Richard put a lot of hard work into ensuring that the boat is looking as good as ever, and is now, beautifully restored once more to her original condition, she is successfully operating out of Whitstable, offering trips along the coast in The Chieftain from July 2020.

Those of us here in Barmouth who remember The Chieftain are so glad she has gone to a good home. Aberdyfi Harbourmaster Wil Stockford, who is also helm of the Aberdyfi boat remembers his father serving on The Chieftain and has fond childhood memories of being taken on board her.   Wil took a trip down to Kent in late 2019 and met Richard, who made him very welcome, offering him the opportunity to take her for a spin.  But Wil also had another reason for visiting.

Since the very early days of the service it was RNLI practice to issue each lifeboat with a supply of brandy to be used to revive survivors when necessary. This continued until the 1980s and Wil’s father, John Stockford, had kept the very last bottle of cognac from The Chieftain presented by Martell & Co in 1981. Although the bottle was sadly now empty, Richard was delighted to receive it!

They say that you can’t keep a good lifeboatman down and that goes for lifeboats too.  When The Chieftain was out on a trip with passengers on 2 August 2020, Richard picked up a father and son who had capsized their canoe off Whitstable and could not make it back to the shore.  The young boy was taken aboard and kept warm while they towed the father and his canoe back to the beach. ‘We might be old but we’ve still got it!’ said Richard.

One thing is certain; The Chieftain will always be welcome should she ever pay another visit to her old home in Barmouth.

You can find out more about the trips by going to the Facebook page: ‘Whitstable Vintage Lifeboat Trips’.

Norma Stockford, August 2020.