Shelter from the Orkney storm

The tabloids called it a weather bomb. For the RNLI lifeboat crews of Scotland’s Northern Isles, there were no excuses. The weather was unusually bad – yes – but our lifeboats, and their crews, were prepared for the worst.

View from the wheelhouse of the RNLI Stromness lifeboat during the storm

On Tuesday night, 9 December 2014, Stromness RNLI Second Mechanic Norman Brass was heading for bed: ‘When I turned out the lights the night before in my home overlooking the water, I could see the waves breaking all the way across Hoy Sound. My immediate thought was: “I hope the pager doesn’t go off tonight.”’

Meanwhile, the 16-strong crew of the Spanish trawler O Genita were heading for their home port of Vigo, Galicia. In a violent storm with an 11m swell, the 30m trawler ploughed south. Until one very powerful wave smashed through the bridge windows, wiping out O Genita’s steering and electronics. She was 25 miles north-west of the Orkney island of Westray. It was just before 6am – and time to send out a mayday call.

The crew were roused from their beds on that dark December morning and headed for the station, and launched the Severn class lifeboat Fraser Flyer. Crew Member Liam Temple recalls: ‘Getting that early-morning call is always a thought, but hearing the wind howling and knowing what weather was forecast, I knew it wasn’t going to be a pleasant shout. It certainly got the heart racing.’

Norman continues: ‘Our Second Coxswain Colin Mowat knows Hoy Sound better than most people, as he goes in and out there every day with our previous Coxswain Willie Sinclair in their creel boat. So we had the right man at the wheel for this shout. We all adjusted our seat belts going out of the harbour and prepared for the worst. The boat seemed to cope very well with the huge swell as we headed north, as long as we kept the speed down to about 9 or 10 knots.’

While the lifeboat and her crew took on their 30-mile 4-hour trip from Stromness, the O Genita crew repaired as much of the damage as they could, restoring the steering and some electronics. A Coastguard helicopter also made its way to the scene. The lifeboat crew advised the skipper to take shelter downwind of Westray. With the wheelhouse window still broken, with water still coming in, and with no sign of conditions abating, they would need an escort to safety.

The lifeboat crew found the trawler near a dangerous shoal north of the neighbouring island of Papa Westray. They led her to the safe Westray harbour of Pierowall, taking shelter from the force 11 south-westerly winds in the lee of Papa Westray. They came alongside just before 11.30am.

But the job wasn’t done for the Stromness volunteers. The exposed return route to Stromness at that state of tide would be difficult and dangerous. The Coxswain decided to head for the sheltered west-coast port of Kirkwall instead.

This worked out pretty well for one Westray man whose wife had just given birth prematurely at the hospital in Kirkwall. With ferries not operating due to the wild weather, he was able to hitch a lift onboard the Fraser Flyer and be with his young family.

The crew took shelter in Kirkwall until 5pm, waiting for the right conditions for safer passage back to Stromness.

Norman says: ‘We decided to wait for the tide to turn at the south end of the Pentland Firth so we could head round the east side of Orkney, returning up through Scapa Flow. We would never have made it attempting to come in through Hoy Sound. But we were well looked after in Westray and Kirkwall, getting pies and rolls to keep us going. This was much appreciated, and on arrival back in Stromness we all had fish suppers waiting!’

The crew got back to Stromness, and its attendant fish suppers, at 9pm after a long day at sea. It was a day Liam won’t forget: ‘This shout was the longest and toughest one I’ve been on, and perhaps some of the other crew would agree. But that’s what we are here for and it’s very satisfying knowing we helped get the Spanish crew and their boat to safer water.’

Norman adds: ‘These were probably the worst conditions I have seen on a shout over the 20 years I have had with the RNLI. I can honestly say I was proud of all the guys who went out, and if we were asked to do it again tonight I would be more than happy to go.’

* Stromness crew were called out a number of times in rough weather over the Winter, including the search for the eight-strong crew of the cargo ship Cemfjord, which sank on 3 January. Lifeboat crews from Stromness, Longhope, Thurso and Wick searched over 2 days, but no one was found. Longhope Coxswain Kevin Kirkpatrick says: 'It is with heavy hearts that we returned to station but all the crew did their very best during this long, tragic search. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of the missing crew of the Cemfjord.'

Commercial fishing is the UK's most dangerous industry, with an average of 12 deaths a year. See the RNLI's latest advice on staying safe for commercial fishermen.