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Four lifeboats. One massive mission.

‘Crikey! What are we expected to do with this?’ Yarmouth RNLI Coxswain Howard Lester’s reaction to the sight of a 180m car carrier with a 45° list.

Helicopter hovering above an RNLI lifeboat during a training exercise at sea

Photo: Michael Angus

Hoegh Osaka was aground in the Solent, and the lives of her 25-strong crew were in danger. Those crew knew that their best chance of a safe escape was to clamber up the sloping passages to the high starboard side and wait for helicopter rescue.

But four lifeboats were on scene – and this turned out to be a very good thing.

It was 3 January 2015. The lifeboats, paged just before 9.30pm, were the small D class lifeboat from Calshot, the B class lifeboats from Calshot and Cowes, and the large Severn class lifeboat from Yarmouth. Each would have a role to play.

As Hoegh Osaka continued to keel over and the list increased, it got harder to make it to a safe winching spot. Yarmouth RNLI Crew Member Wayne Isaacson says: ‘Some were trying to climb up the sloping corridor, while others were trapped in the bridge clinging onto desks. If they slipped, they would face a 20m drop, slamming into the metal below.’ A scary proposition. The lifeboat crews trained their spotlights around the ship’s hull, keeping an eye out for any would-be jumpers.

The first person they spotted was clinging to a bollard half-way up the hull and shouting for help. The smallest lifeboat, Calshot’s D class, was best suited to close-quarters work like this, and her crew approached the listing vessel. The man used a ladder to practically walk aboard.

Next, it was step-up time for 22-year-old postie Martin Barrett, a volunteer onboard the D class: ‘The B class radioed that someone else was going to jump. Mike [helmsman] took the lifeboat around sharpish and we saw him hit the water 3m away. Mike nudged the nose of the D class onto the ship but the tide pinned the casualty against the side – he was in danger of being swept under the hull.

‘His head was showing but he was just out of arm’s reach. I kept shouting: “Can you hear me?” but there was no response. Eventually he raised his arm, so I just grabbed him and Mike and [fellow crew member] Gavin helped him aboard. It didn’t hit me until a couple of days later, the magnitude of it all. He may not be here today if I hadn’t grabbed him. It was my first life saved.’

The rescued men were transferred aboard the Severn class lifeboat from Yarmouth for greater comfort and/or helicopter evacuation.

Meanwhile, Coxswain Lester, aboard the Yarmouth lifeboat realised that one of his crew could be useful for the winching operation onboard Hoegh Osaka. Wayne Isaacson is an experienced tree surgeon and, in his own words, ‘used to dangling on the end of a rope’.

Wayne was brought aboard the Coastguard helicopter and lowered down onto the ship, now listing towards 52°. The Coastguard winchman Dave Wallace was already getting survivors up to the helicopter, but he was glad to have another safe pair of hands to help.

Wayne set to it, lowering looped ropes down into the ship and hauling crew members up, ready for winching. He recalls: ‘Concentrating on what we were doing, I lost count of the number of people we helped, but it must have been about 12 and Dave had already helped many others. We weren’t conscious of the ship moving, but it was definitely steeper when we were finally winched off together!’

All 25 onboard Hoegh Osaka were finally accounted for. And the lifeboat crews were greeted with hot cups of tea at their respective stations by 1.30am.

Our volunteers are trained and equipped to attend rescues like this, thanks to generous public support. Help them be there next time. Donate here.