Within ten minutes of the maroons being fired the Walmer lifeboat Charles Dibden was launched from the steep beach. The weather was starting to deteriorate with an increasing southerly breeze that was clearing the sea mist. As the lifeboat got clear of the land on that cold day of January 2nd 1948 the crew started to feel the vessel roll and pitch as they approached the Goodwin Sands.
An hour earlier, as the fog dispersed, a ship had been sighted by the Deal coastguards in an unusual position close to the deadly sandbank. As the Charles Dibden approached the casualty her skipper, Freddie Upton, found the seas in a confused state. With the tide falling and the wind freshening the waves started to become unpredictable and perplexing. The stranded ship turned out to be the 290 feet long Silvia Onorato, an Italian cargo vessel of 2,327 tons.
Cautiously Upton conned the lifeboat closer to the casualty, however, by this time the waves were building up and cresting to an uncomfortable height. One wave, larger than the rest, lifted the lifeboat to enable her crew to look down onto the ship’s deck. As the sea receded the Charles Dibden scrapped down the vessel’s hull, fortunately doing little damage to the rescue craft. Upton managed to get a crewman aboard the Silvia Onorato and Captain Francesco Ruocco explained that he was prepared to try and steam the ship off the sandbank at high tide.
Ruocco’s futile attempt only drove his vessel off one sandbar onto the next sandbank. The ship’s propeller churned up sand and spray, in only 14 feet of water the vessel needed at least 20 feet to float off. With the weather worsening and the tide falling, Upton put the lifeboat alongside the hulk and picked up his crewman. He explained to the Italian captain that they would have to anchor off in deeper water, nevertheless, if any emergencies occurred he would respond immediately. It would be an uncomfortable night that they spent with only a meagre supply of rum ration to help.
Hardly any of them slept and just before dawn they had up-anchored and were alongside the ship again. The lifeboat coxswain explained that they had to go ashore and refuel and they would be back within a couple of hours. True to his word they returned and stood by for a second day and night, as the weather worsened and the wind reached gale force.
Daybreak on Sunday, 4th January not only heralded another rough day but also was Upton’s 51st birthday. When he went alongside the Silvia Onarato her master stated that the vessel was sound and he did not wish for himself or his crew to vacate the ship. Upton took the lifeboat back to the Walmer station for the boat to re-fuel and her crew to have a meal.
Inside a few hours the Charles Dibden was back alongside the ship. Freddie had had a warning from the coastguards that the gale was going to increase to a storm and winds of fifty knots were predicted. It was enough to convince the Italian and he reluctantly allowed his 28 crew, two stowaways and himself to be taken ashore. The ship never survived the gale and broke her back to remain forever on the Goodwins.