By David Chamberlain
On the night of January 13th, 1952, the worst gale of that winter was raging. Sheets of horizontal rain lashed the lifeboat crew as they were summoned to the Charles Dibden by the sound of two maroons. With limited information, Freddie Upton launched into a black raging sea and steered a course towards the South Goodwin where a flare had been sighted. As they approached the Sands he could not see any sign of the casualty and the coastguards had stated that no radio contact had been heard. After searching the western edge of the Goodwins one of the crew spotted a faint glimmer of a flare on the outer bank. In the early hours of that windswept morning they came across the remains of the French ship, Agen. Immediately it was obvious why the ship had not been in wireless contact with the coastguards and was not showing any lights - she had broken in two.
Fourteen times coxswain Upton conned the lifeboat toward the bow section of the 4,610 ton hulk, where the captain and 37 crewmen were sheltering from the massive waves that were battering the vessel. He soon realised the danger to the lifeboat and his own crewmembers and stood by the wreck until 6am and daybreak. As the tide and sea moderated slightly he steered the Charles Dibden through the narrow thirty foot gap of the two halves of the Agen. With the lifeboats cork fenders rubbing and shredding on the ship’s hull, they manhandled the dejected sailors onto the safety of their pitching and rolling craft. However, the captain of the Agen, Maurice Landreau, refused to leave.
Reluctantly, the Walmer lifeboat headed back to shore, as she were low on fuel and to deliver the suffering shipwrecked crew. By 11am on that same morning, the Charles Dibden had refuelled and headed back out to the remains of the Agen. This time captain Landreau relented, knowing there was no hope for his ship and valuable cargo. For this save Freddie Upton and his crew were honoured by the French Consul three weeks later in the Royal Hotel at Deal. A congenial evening was spent, with the consul expressing his thanks and that 38 of his compatriots were still alive and saved from the clutches of the Goodwin Sands.
Another near tragedy was also occurring on that same night, a Panamanian registered tanker, Sovak Radiant, of 17,598 tons went aground just off St Margaret’s Bay. Coastguards from Deal and Dover set up a cliff rescue unit and made the perilous decent in the gale force wind and rain. Deal man, and auxiliary coastguard, Alec Marsh, later related that the conditions were difficult and treacherous. The massive ship was not close enough inshore and their rocket propelled lines were of no use. They waited frustratingly until, in the morning light, they abandoned the rescue. Eventually, on the next day’s high tide the stricken vessel was towed off by the tugs and salved with no loss of life and minimal damage.