The sea bed around Heligoland is studded with rocks and there are dangerous shallows. Since the very early days, seafarers have run into trouble here during powerful storms. Local fishermen and pilots often put their own lives at risk to row out to the ships and rescue crews and cargo.
Nevertheless, the island didn’t provide maritime rescue as a matter of course. If a sailing boat ran into trouble, the captain often had to offer serious money to gain assistance. The effort often put the lives of the rescuers themselves at risk, and it took a lot of oarsmen to tow a disabled boat far enough for it to resume its course.
And often, the sea had the last word. In the mid-19th century there were so many maritime accidents in the German Bight that a call went out to establish lifeboat stations. The first regional maritime search and rescue association was founded in Emden in 1861; others followed. In 1865, these local associations merged to create the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service.
Heligoland, which was British at the time, set up its first lifeboat station in 1868, in cooperation with the UK coast guard. In 1890, the station became German along with the island as a whole. From then on, a lifeboat and the necessary equipment were always available. But maritime rescue operations still represent a serious risk to life and limb. For a long time, open rowing boats were deployed that relied wholly on muscle power to navigate the raging waters.
In 1967, a serious accident occurred off the Heligoland coast. The search and rescue cruiser Adolph Bernpohl failed to return from a mission, and four members of the maritime rescue service were reported missing. The cruiser had been dispatched to rescue a Dutch fishing vessel with a three-man crew in gale-force winds. Nobody knows exactly what happened in the heavy seas. Presumably all the men were killed when a great wave hit and swept them into the water during the attempt to rescue the Dutch crew.
Today, the world’s largest search and rescue cruiser is based in Heligoland harbour. It’s called the Hermann Marwede and is able to accommodate 400 survivors. It even has an operating theatre on board and a 15-strong team is always on call.
All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland