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Stranded in a storm

Trainee Troon lifeboat Crew Member Trevor Boyes sat down to a good lunch on 14 January. Little did he realise that he would soon be battling gale force winds, a 7-8m swell and poor visibility to go to the rescue of a trawler crew stranded offshore. It would be his second shout.

RNLI Troon's lifeboat towing the 140-tonne trawler Spes Bona towards the safety of Troon Harbour

The rescue

The crew of the trawler Spes Bona were at the mercy of worsening weather, having fouled their propellers about 6 miles from Troon on the Ayrshire coast. Stranded in fading light, gale-force winds and freezing rain as huge waves broke over the stern, the experienced crew knew that they needed the help of the RNLI if they were to get back home safely.

At 2.05pm, on the belts, in the pockets and on the tables of the Girvan and Troon lifeboat crews, pagers buzzed madly. Lunches were left untouched, frantic calls to pick up the children made and – in the case of Girvan’s John Tait – shopping trolleys abandoned in the middle of supermarket aisles in the desperate rush to get to the lifeboats.

‘What is that wee boat going to be able to do?’

Leaving Girvan in a hurry, the all-weather lifeboat Sylvia Burrell, under the command of Second Coxswain Gary McGarvie, arrived at the Spes Bona at 2.45pm. Upon arrival, the crew found four Spes Bona fishermen desperately trying to cut away a net in order to free the propeller and rudder. In the progressively worsening seas, this was no small task, with waves breaking over the stern.

Gary recalls the trawler skipper’s reaction to seeing the 12m Mersey class lifeboat coming over the waves: ‘Because he’s based in Troon and he’s used to seeing a bigger lifeboat, when he saw us coming over the top of the wave he thought: “What the hell is that wee boat going to be able to do?!”’

Meanwhile, the Troon lifeboat was still fighting to get to the scene. Having left Troon a man short and headed into the worst conditions he’d ever faced, the last thing that Coxswain Joe Millar wanted to hear was that one of his crew was unwell. Behind him, Mechanic Andrew Alston had fallen ill and was getting worse. With no nearby harbour to land him safely and the conditions far too dangerous to risk a boat-to-boat transfer, Joe requested a helicopter evacuation to safely airlift him to hospital.

The Royal Navy Search and Rescue helicopter arrived quickly, but the sea was already intent on making every part of this rescue as difficult as possible. With the huge swell and wind throwing the boat up and down, it became extremely difficult and dangerous for the winchman to get onto the deck to lift Andrew to safety.

At one moment, as Trevor recalls: 'The winchman landed on his tip-toes and thought that he was on the deck. Suddenly, because of the swell, the boat dropped down and back up again so quickly that it caused him to smash into the deck with a bang. After getting back to his feet, a few seconds later Allan (Troon's Second Mechanic) and I saw him coming down onto the deck again and - thankfully - Allan managed to get one side of him as he was heading for one of the big bollards at the back and get a leg in between him and the bollard. If he’d hit the bollard, we probably would have had another casualty onboard.’

Joe Millar adds: ‘The man on the winch wasn’t a happy chap - he said to me that he wasn’t sure if he could get Andrew off in these conditions. As we were already on Plan B, I had Plans C, D and E running through my head! I’ve now got an extra man onboard, an ill crew member that needs help and the Girvan crew having a tough time of it and needing our help. So I decided to head back towards land where it wasn’t so rough to allow the winchman to try again before we headed out to help Girvan.’

Joe’s plan worked, and the calmer conditions meant that Andrew could finally be airlifted to safety. However, his crew now had to head towards the Spes Bona, in terrible conditions, one man down in a team that was already short.

‘Have we bitten off more than we can chew here?’

Meanwhile, the crew aboard the Spes Bona had managed to cut free the nets, but a wire was still fouling the propeller and rudder, leaving the trawler at the mercy of the sea. With the winds still picking up, snow squalls still beating down and the seas building to 7-8m, Gary McGarvie made the decision to attach a tow rope to the bow of the trawler and tow her towards Troon, making plans to transfer the tow to the Troon crew en-route.

Weighing just 14.3 tonnes, the ‘wee boat’ towed the 140-tonne trawler towards the safety of Troon Harbour. As a result of the sheer strain it was under, the tow-line attached to the Spes Bona’s stern snapped, but the Girvan volunteers attached another and continued towards the harbour. As the orange flash of Troon lifeboat appeared on the horizon, the Girvan crew breathed a sigh of relief. The diminished Troon crew, after three attempts, transferred the line and resumed the tow. However, with conditions continuing to deteriorate, Gary and Joe decided that it was best that both crews helped guide the trawler back to Troon – with the Girvan lifeboat attached to the stern of the trawler (acting as a drogue) to slow its speed and prevent it from broaching or crashing into an oncoming wave.

With screaming winds and a huge swell, the two lifeboat crews had to rely on their training, experience and communication to work as a team and get the trawler back safely. In the poor light conditions, Troon found themselves losing sight of Girvan as all three boats were mercilessly thrown around. Reflecting on the journey back, Joe Millar says: ‘At one point on the way back, I thought to myself: “Have we bitten off more than we can chew here?”’

To avoid disaster, the two crews relied as much on their training and instincts as on VHF communication, with Joe and Gary constantly adjusting their approaches to counteract the weather. Often having to speed up and slow down to keep the trawler steady, it was vitally important that the two crews worked in unison. Speaking of the teamwork, Gary attributes the success of the rescue to the fact that RNLI training not only provides all lifeboat crew with the same knowledge, but that it builds confidence and faith in the crew and the boats.

‘The training they do on Monday night is invaluable and you see that when you’re out on shouts like these,' he says. 'On Monday nights you may see a few hiccups and think "we are never going to get this" but then you go out on a shout like this and it all just falls into place.'

One chance to get it right

Although the sight of Troon Harbour was a relief to all three crews, Joe and Gary knew that the hardest part of the rescue was yet to come. The crews had to enter the harbour at speed while maintaining control of the trawler as force 11 winds blew off of the harbour wall, and then quickly shorten the ropes to bring in and tie up the Spes Bona. And they had only one chance to get it right. As Joe Millar says: ‘Out at sea, if anything went wrong, we would have had time to sort it out and fix it. In the harbour, if anything went wrong or we made a wrong move, I have no doubt that it would have ended in tragedy.’

With a huge amount of skill and strength, Allan and Trevor managed to tie the trawler up safely and the three crews stepped, relieved, onto dry land at Troon. In the crew room at Troon Lifeboat Station, the rest of the crew had heard about the rescue and the conditions and were waiting with chips and boiled kettle at the ready. The crews from Girvan and Troon sat together to unwind, get warm and dry off before Girvan crew headed back into the rough seas, 91mph winds and falling darkness to make the 3-hour journey home.

Reflecting on the rescue, Joe says: ‘I was very relieved to see the boat tied up. We’d been in the boathouse for about 20 minutes when the skipper of the Spes Bona came around to thank us. He’s a very well respected and experienced fisherman, and he said that they were the worst conditions he’d ever been out in. For us all to have returned, with the exception of Andrew being ill, and for the only damage to have been to Girvan’s tow rope, isn’t bad going considering what potentially could have happened. I couldn’t be prouder of my crew.’

Gary McGarvie adds: ‘Yes, the weather was a wee bit lumpy but it’s just something that we train for. We have a lot of respect for the boats themselves, and a lot of trust in them and their capabilities. We feel comfortable and safe in that environment.’

For their boat handling skill, leadership and courage, Coxswain Joe Millar and Second Coxswain Gary McGarvie will be awarded the Thanks of the Institution on Vellum, while Allan Craig, Paul Morledge and Trevor Boyes from Troon, and Barry Hubbard, Henry McMaster, Keith Woods and John Tait from Girvan will receive a Framed Letter of Thanks from the RNLI Chairman.

Girvan Lifeboat Station is also celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Your support can help keep volunteers like those at Girvan and Troon trained and equipped for the next emergency. Please donate today. Thank you.