A Tale of Three Coxwains and their boats

The boats:

Jack Watters, 1954 to 1959....

Jack WattersJack Watters

Crews in the old days tended to be local seamen - often fishermen but with some merchant seamen or crew from pilot boats. On many lifeboats, several crew members often came from the same family, making for difficult decisions when it came to going out on potentially very dangerous 'shouts'.

The first coxswain in 1954 was Jack Watters, who was local to the Fowey area and worked in the docks. Watters was the stuff of folklore. He was described by those who knew him as a fine natural seaman, with an uncanny ability to 'read' the sea and local topography without the use of navigational aids or charts. This seems to have been just as well, as he was reported to be illiterate, unable to read or write.

His constant companion was a Whippet dog called Lil - known by his crew as 'the assistant Cox'. Lil seems to have been a member of the crew on every 'shout', no matter how difficult the conditions.

Stories abound about Jack Watters.

This piece from the Cornish Guardian gives a good flavour of the man.

“It was November 1940 when the call came through to Fowey lifeboat station that  a Motor Gun Boat was sinking fast after detonating one of the many German mines that had been dropped by enemy planes around the approach to the harbour.

The action that followed was typical of the port's cavalier coxswain, the legendary Jack Watters and his crew. With only her bow visible , there was no time to lose and the lifeboat made a beeline for the sinking MTB, exploding three more acoustic mines in the process, but suffering no real damage herself.

Jack Watters was presented with the RNLI bronze bravery award in 1947, after he and his men saved seven men when the Empire Contamar struck rocks near Par.

Like many a coxswain, Jack Watters was not one to suffer fools, or authority gladly. The crusty cox delighted in cocking a snoop at the rule books by taking his pet whippet on rescue missions. Those who knew him cannot recall a time when his dog Lil was not at his side.

Mike Webber was Jack's engineer for seven years, which was a lot longer than most.

Recalled Mike : “He would sometimes hold up the launch of the boat until someone got him a few bottles of beer from one of the pubs. I can remember one shout we wewr on when he asked me to get out the rum. He didn't bother to take  the cork out, he just smashed the top of the bottle against the wheel and started pouring it down his neck. Then he ordered me to break out the chocolate ration for his whippet.

He'd fight anybody - he was a wicked so-in-so. We once had a call in the middle of the night and he gave the crew hell for not getting to the boat quick enough. But there waqs no shout, he'd set off the maroon himself just for the hell of it.

He couldn't read or write. You could put a navigation map in front of him and as far as he was concerned , it could have been the Cornish Guardian.

But he was a great coxswain, he could steer a boat anywhere”.


At sea, he had his habits. He quite rightly believed that casualties' bodies could be disturbed on the bottom and raised if the boat passed over the corpse at speed. Watters therefore used to make full speed passes in shallow water, on some occasions very close inshore. One individual recounted the alarm of James Turpin, subsequently Cox, but then the mechanic, who on looking out of the small porthole from his position at Watter's feet, found himself inspecting limpets on the face of a large rock seemingly inches from the boat.

 The launch authority in Fowey had a very restrictive attitude to sending the boat out, believing that it had to be very clear that life was at serious risk before authorising launch. Watters therefore had to take the boat out frequently on training assignments. Some of these were reported to have been used for taking skips of rubbish out to sea for disposal - for a small fee.

In his latter days, Jack Watters suffered from arthritis, which restricted his movements. On many a day, he spent several hours with Lil in the pub. The combination of great stiffness and possibly alcohol meant that he sometimes had to be assisted to the boat. Yet so great was his reputation as a seaman that crews were still willing to sail with him - and of course, in those days, some of his behaviours might not have aroused the same outrage.

Watters end was tragic - apparently he committed suicide believing erroneously that he had cancer. The local paper in his obituary   described him as 'wicked' Jack Watters. Such characters make for good stories and he must have been a fantastic seaman, but today's lifeboats and life-boatmen are a completely different proposition to wooden 8-knot 'Deneys Reitz' and wicked Jack Watters.

Brian Willis

Brian WillisBrian Willis

Jack Watters was succeeded by James Turpin and then Brian Willis. Prior to becoming Cox, Brian was also a dock worker in Fowey. Brian hailed from Burgh Castle in Norfolk, so his accent is an interesting mix of Cornish and Norfolk.

He is stocky, sociable and humorous, but it is not difficult to detect a decidedly determined interior. Not a man to take liberties with. Despite the fact that he had ambiguous feelings about his boat being converted into a cruising craft, he was instrumental in persuading some other ex-crew members to give their support to the project. The ex-mechanic was heard to mutter audibly that the conversion was "A fine way to ruin a good boat".

He described taking a previous lifeboat to 'Deneys Reitz' out of Fowey harbour in a near-hurricane. The boat fell off a huge wave, hit the bottom in some 50 feet of water, struggled up, was immediately struck by another monster, plunged again and hit the bottom. Brian explained that at that point all aboard believed they were done for, but: "She just came up and went on as though nothing had happened". This must have been an interesting experience, as the boat had an open cockpit. Brian is a thoughtful man and very aware of the dual responsibilities of the cox - to save life and to keep the crew safe. He obviously still feels deeply about the terrible decision that faced the cox of the Penlee lifeboat, which managed to save four people from the coaster Union Star close inshore in waves estimated by a helicopter pilot to be 70 feet high. The pilot, an American seconded to the Royal Navy, said that the size and turbulence of the waves made a helicopter rescue impossible. He marvelled at the courage of the cox and crew of the “Solomon Browne”, a 47 foot Watson class, in going alongside the pitching casualty. After he saw the people being taken off, the lifeboat backed off the casualty and the pilot assumed that its work was done, so he set course for his home airfield. What he didn't know was that cox'n Trevelyan Richards was not prepared to leave the rest of the crew on the battered Union Star, so he went back for another try. The lifeboat was smashed to pieces, apparently by being washed over the casualty and into the cliffs beyond. All were killed. Brian Willis is still troubled by this event, wondering at the terrible decisions that had to be made by cox'n Richards and ruminating on whether it is possible to be too brave. Few people are faced as a matter of course with such terrible decisions. (For a moving video clip, Google: BBC ON THIS DAY I 20 I 1981 Lifeboat crew missing after mission)

Brian Willis became cox of the Fowey lifeboat at a time of great change. Once Deneys Reitz was retired, Fowey was given a 38 foot Brede class lifeboat, derived from the fast and durable Lochin fast fishing boat. To Willis, this was tantamount to an insult. The boat was limited to a maximum of Force 8 winds and according to him was far too flimsy to be a proper lifeboat: "She would fall apart if you as much as touched a casualty". We always regarded Lochins as quite tough, but not Brian. He liked his boats to be proper manly craft - hence his reservations about converting our boat. As he said after taking it out from Fowey harbour and thrashing it to speeds and engine revs we would not dream of: "Well, it's a lovely boat, but she's not a lifeboat anymore". We had visions of his boat dressed in pink frilly clothes, smelling of exotic fragrances.

After the RNLI apparently realised the error of its ways and withdrew the Brede, Fowey received a 44 foot Waveney class boat. This boat was derived from a US Coastguard design and despite its somewhat angular appearance was apparently a fantastic boat, fast, strong and capable of taking anything the sea could throw at it. To Willis, this was a proper boat and he loved it. What he specially liked was its sea-keeping and stability, describing a VHF call from the Fowey pilot boat, also out in a storm. "Are you OK", asked the pilot, "All we can see is your bottom". "No problems" replied Willis, "Just rolling a bit!"

The Waveney class was a transitional boat between the traditional wooden designs - basically unchanged for more than 100 years - and the modern craft. And it seems that Brian Willis was also a transitional cox, with one foot in the traditions of past and the other in the evolving high-tech, high speed Fast Afloat boats, which he never came to command owing to an untimely, but luckily not fatal heart attack. (Written 2008).

Keith Stuart

Keith StuartKeith Stuart

The current Fowey lifeboat, Trent class 'Maurice and Joyce Hardy', is representative of the new generation of fast afloat lifeboats. Her hull is constructed from a mix of carbon and plastic materials and she has two large MAN diesels of 808 HP each. They provide quite breathtaking acceleration and control. At top speed of 25 knots, she consumes about 350 litres of diesel per hour, as opposed to 'Deneys Reitz's' 12/15. But the real differences lie in the control, communications and navigational technology. The wheelhouse can be fully sealed and has 6 seats along each side, with helm position central. The boat can be driven from an upper helm position. This can be overridden from the wheelhouse, so when Don was driving it, the boat suddenly started to career at breakneck speed all over the sea, controlled by Keith Stuart from below. Every seat has a screen on which can be displayed a full range of navigational data from radar, GPS, speed and direction-finding equipment. One seat is the communications position. Keith Stuart's philosophy is to have all the senior crew members capable of operating interchangeably. Unlike his predecessors, Stuart is highly qualified, having an engineering degree. Such a level of qualification is desirable on the modern lifeboat, and Keith, who is full-time, also acts as the boat's engineer.

The ability to master complex electronics is a normal requirement for operating modern lifeboats, so by comparison with 'Deneys Reitz', the wheelhouse of the Trent class boat seems rather like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. But some things do not change; after all, the sea is still the same and the coast of Cornwall, which is subjected to the full force of the Atlantic, still a dangerous place for the unwary.

Keith Stuart is a seaman first and then a technician.

Like Brian Willis, he is stocky and physically strong, with a full-face beard and an accent that hails from the North East of England. He is obviously good-humoured, but it is not difficult to detect an air of authority. This becomes really apparent on the boat. There are no histrionics, no orders are issued, but Keith's quiet authority and calm are palpable. It is quite obvious that the crew have great respect for him. The relationships between him and the senior members of the crew are close enough to make sure that the boat is handled efficiently with the minimum of vocalising. Everybody knows what they and the others are doing and can interchange roles flexibly as the situation demands. This close teamwork is a mark of Keith Stuart's leadership and must be a considerable strength in difficult situations. It is also obvious that senior crew members take it upon themselves to help and coach the less experienced ones and doubtless in time some of them will become members of the senior team.

We were invited to go to sea on Maurice and Joyce Hardy. Apart from the seamanship, close teamwork and quiet humour, one incident stands out. The boat was brought alongside a fishing boat at sea and Keith leaned over the fly-bridge side to talk to the skipper on its deck. He kept the lifeboat on station by manipulating the throttles delicately with two fingers of one hand - it was second nature, easy for him, but not so easy when we had a go!

The RNLI has the atmosphere of a close family. As we travelled around the UK and Ireland, we met several coxes, who when we mentioned Fowey, lit up. One Irish cox exclaimed: "Ah Fowey! Keith Stuart! Sure, but he's a good man and a foine feller for the craic and a jar or two. I'm a bit hazy about the last night we spent together". Equally, there seems to be a close affinity between the Fowey community and the lifeboat, so walking round the town with Keith was a slow process, interrupted by many conversations and greetings.