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Shipwrecks and sea rescue: Lifeboat service in South Australia

The horrific wreck of the SS Admella off Cape Northumberland in August 1859, with the loss of 89 lives and the ship (see Shipwrecks 1859) revealed how unprepared South Australia was to cope with a maritime disaster. Despite the valiant efforts of the keeper at the Cape Northumberland lighthouse, Ben Germein, of the Portland lifeboat under Captain Fawthrop, and several other ships, all but 24 of the passengers and crew perished. Within three weeks of this pivotal event the South Australian government had placed an order for two lifeboats and 12 sets of rocket apparatus. Ironically in hindsight, The Observer of 27 March 1858 reported that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in England had sent sets of working drawings of its lifeboat's design to each of the Australian colonial governments.

First lifeboat

The first boat Rescue was placed at Port MacDonnell in 1861. In a notice in South Australian Government Gazette 2 January 1862, it was recorded that lifeboats had been placed at 'The Mouth of the River Murray, Encounter Bay, Port Robe, Guichen Bay, Port MacDonnell, and Cape Northumberland.'  A further boat, to the Royal National Life-Boat Institution design was 'kept in reserve at Port Adelaide, to be sent to any part of the coast, by steamer...' as needed.  The Gazette also advised that rocket apparatus had been placed at Port Willunga, Port Elliot, Robe, Port MacDonnell, Sturt lighthouse (Cape Willoughby), Flinders lighthouse (Cape Borda), and Port Lincoln. By 1867 the lifeboat at Encounter Bay had been named as being at Port Elliot; further rocket apparatus had been placed at Streaky Bay, and Port Yankalilla.

By 1873 the lifeboat at Port Elliot had been relocated to Port Victor (Victor Harbor), as a result of the closure of Port Elliot as an operational port. A further increase was reflected in the Adelaide Almanac and Directory for 1880 with lifeboats at Port Victor, Robe, Port MacDonnell, Beachport, Murray Mouth (Port Goolwa) and at Semaphore. The reserve lifeboat at Port Adelaide was now also held at Semaphore. Additional rocket apparatus had been placed at Cape Jaffa lighthouse. The placement of the lifeboat at Semaphore had been agitated for some time, following accidents in the Gulf. In The Register 9 October 1865 the editorial called for a lifeboat to be placed at Glenelg and suggested that the lifeboat at Port Adelaide was useless there and should be placed at Semaphore, 'while at certain seasons there is great danger...'

Manning the boats

Despite the provision of the lifeboats and their care and management by harbourmasters, there was a problem with the manning of the boats, as reported in The Register of 12 January 1872; the problem was the volunteer system - the men were not always available when needed. The writer advocated the involvement of local merchants and shipping agents, who he thought, had, or at least should have, a vested interest in the lifeboats.

There was no real solution to the issue, other than paying men to remain in long periods of idleness. The problem was not immediately solved. Meanwhile, a local man invented a rocket system that was considered superior to the imported Dennett's Rockets supplied by the government. Mr Hustler's system was trialled very successfully on 5 September 1874. In September 1875 trials were made of 'Goudier's patent life-saving coat'. Interest by the government was not recorded.

Appeal for a new boat
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Change to the lifesaving service
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Launch of the Lady Daly
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Lifeboat regulations
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Lifeboat shed at Beachport, South Australia
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Lifeboats for Glenelg or Semaphore
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Life-saving appliances in South Australia
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Life-saving rocket apparatus in action on a beach
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New life-boat at Port MacDonnell, South Australia
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Our lifeboat service
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Our lifeboat system
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The 'City of Adelaide' life-boat
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