By far the largest number of shipwrecks occur when ships come into unplanned contact with the shore. In less enlightened days the local population took these events to be an unexpected bonus and opportunity for acquiring wealth. Slaughter of ships crew and passengers was common. The wrecking of the Spanish Armada around the shores of Ireland was a good example, of those who made it safely ashore, very few survived.
Attitudes had improved by the 1800’s. However those ashore frequently had no way of giving aid other than forming human chains to assist people ashore through the surf. Lifeboats powered by oar and sail were often at greater risk and unable to assist.
A rope thrown from the shore was a useful tool, and a pulley system – later known as a ‘breeches buoy’ – could be set up to ferry people to safety. However, a person could only throw a rope a short distance, usually against the wind. By the mid 1800’s a US army engineer developed a gun, known as the “Lyle Gun” which fired a projectile over to the ship in trouble. The projectile was attached to a light line and this was used to haul over a heavier rope to set up contact with shore. The Lyle Gun system saved many lives and versions are still used to this day.
By the end of the century a major improvement was the replacement of the gun with a rocket launcher. This was lighter, easier to transport, and the rocket could haul a line farther. The only problem was that the line which lay coiled on the ground could easily snag. The invention of the ‘faking box’ solved this; it was a clever method for laying out the line to avoid snagging.
Our museum has an example of a rescue cart which would have carried all the necessary equipment to the site of a wreck for a shore based rescue.
The rocket rescue team was part of what was known as the Coast Life Saving Service (CLSS), subsequently known as the Cliff and Coast Rescue Service and in later years the Irish Coastguard. It was made up of local volunteers who received training from a Department of Transport employee with a marine background (usually a retired master mariner/ ships captain) who visited the teams 3 to 4 times per year. There were in excess of 50 CLSS rescue units around the coast. The rescue system was inherited from the UK Coastguard. The process involved firing a rocket at and over the ship. The rocket had a light line attached to it and the ships crew hauled on this line which in turn had a heavy hemp rope attached. The heavy rope was then secured to the mast of the vessel and the “breeches” were then hauled out. A crew member sat into the breeches and was hauled to safety by the team of volunteers on shore. Each crew member had to be hauled ashore individually. This same system of rescue was still in use in the 1980s. It is likely that the last time it was used was at Slay Head, Dingle in 1982 when the Spanish owned MV Ranga went aground on its maiden voyage. Interestingly although helicopters were in regular use in the 1980s for sea rescue the helicopter could not operate effectively with the down draft from the cliffs and the only option for rescuing the Ranga crew was the rocket and breeches buoy.