The Welly Trail Brian ROWSELL


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Brian Leonard Rowsell

Coxswain 1964 – 1982 

Coxswain of three Lifeboats:

Michael Stephens


City of Birmingham


Master Boat builder

specialising in racing dinghies


Trinity House Pilot


Served in the RNLI for 30 years

Coxswain for 18 years.

Born in Exmouth. 

As children, Brian and his 3 brothers fished with their father in his boat ‘Olive Branch’

He was a member of Exmouth Sea Cadets and the Exe Sailing Club, where he learnt to sail dinghies and was hugely encouraged by older members, particularly his mentor Ivor Williams.

After leaving school Brian began his boat building apprenticeship with Walter Holman who, at that time was launching authority for the lifeboat. With Coxswain Dido Bradford as a friend and neighbour, Brian was encouraged to join the RNLI. 

His National Service in the Navy included time spent on Royal Navy motor Torpedo Boats and, at this time, his ability to sail was recognised and lead to an Olympic trial. He still served as an RNLI Crew member when on leave from his National Service. 

Brian had a boat building business, B L Rowsell Ltd, on Camperdown Terrace, specialising in building racing dinghies.  Younger brother Peter started as his apprentice, becoming a partner in the business which was renamed Rowsell Brothers.  Over the next 20 years, they built 325 Merlin Rocket Class dinghies and had an 18 month waiting list.  This attracted many award winning racing sailors to Exmouth, making it a centre of excellence.  

During this time Brian became a Trinity House Pilot at Exmouth docks. Unusually, the RNLI allowed him to remain part of the crew as long as the piloting did not interfere.

Brian’s daughters Joanne and Claire remember their childhood home revolving around the RNLI.  These were the days before pagers.  “Shouts” were telephoned through to the house. Brian would cycle down the dockside to get the boarding boat ready. His wife Mavis, armed with contact details would phone around until she had a crew for the boat. One of their daughters distinctly remembers her dad picking up the phone and Mavis saying “Tom, lifeboat” and him replying “Okay Maeve I’m on my way” Then, like all lifeboat families, we waited for them to return.

On 17th April, 1965, in a force 8 gale, 2 canoes were reported in trouble off Dawlish.  In a notable ‘first’ for Exmouth, Coxswain Rowsell requested a helicopter to help search the area.  Within minutes, a canoe was spotted, and a 14 year old girl was winched into the helicopter and taken to hospital.  The second canoe had reached the beach safely.

In 1963, the RNLI added high speed inflatable Inshore Lifeboats, originally called Inshore Rescue Boats, to the fleet, Exmouth receiving its first in 1966. These are ideal for dealing with incidents close to the shore, where the bigger boats cannot reach. 

At a ceremony on 29th May, the new boat was officially commissioned and within hours was called to rescue bathers in trouble near Dawlish Warren.  Despite the crowds of people on the sea front, IRB Helmsman Peter Rowsell and his brother, Coxswain Brian Rowsell launched 10 minutes after the alarm. The sea was rough and a particularly large wave tipped the boat on edge, throwing both brothers into the sea.  They got back on board and carried on, rescuing 3 people and returning to Exmouth where the casualties were rushed to hospital.  However, one swimmer was still missing, so the brothers set off again to search, with The Michael Stephens launching to help.

The brothers were each awarded a Thanks On Vellum by the RNLI for their skill, courage and great determination. 

B, D and E Class inflatables are referred to as Inshore Lifeboats (ILBs) while the A Class inflatable is referred to as an Inshore Rescue Boat (IRB) and is primarily used by the RNLI Lifeguards.

It has been a long standing tradition that people from The Midlands come to Exmouth for holidays.  In 1969, this association inspired the Lord Mayor of Birmingham to launch an appeal to raise £40,000 for a new lifeboat to be called ‘The City Of Birmingham’.  It was to be the first steel hull boat in the RNLI fleet. As Radio reception had been unreliable over the years, the Exmouth crew were particularly pleased that it would have Radar. Brian loved innovation and was involved in the trials of this new boat.

Although the appeal raised £42,000, the actual cost was £72,000, the balance paid from RNLI funds. ‘The City of Birmingham’ naming ceremony in Exmouth Docks on 16th May, 1970 was attended by several thousand people, including 500 RNLI supporters who came on a special train from Birmingham.  

During his time as Coxswain Brian actively encouraged others to join the crew. Most notably his great friends David Hurford, who became Coxswain of the Torbay Lifeboat, and Geoff Ingram, a long serving member of the Exmouth crew. 

Brian is linked to this area of Exmouth by his niece Steph (Peter’s daughter) owner of Edge Watersports, and her son Olly and his partner Megan in Hangtime Cafe.  Megan’s twin sister Becky is a paramedic member of the Exmouth RNLI Crew. 

We are grateful to Brian’s daughters Joanne in Budleigh Salterton and Claire in Sidbury for their help with this biography. 


Write the letter S from ROWSELL in space 11 of your answer box.


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