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Appledore and Padstow: A 34-hour rough-sea rescue mission

In their own words, a rescue that involved 3,000 tonnes of cargo, 34 hours, 3 RNLI crews, 2 lifeboats and 1 Dutch warship.

Appledore and Padstow: A 34-hour rough-sea rescue mission

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

‘It’s an unusual coincidence,’ says Padstow Mechanic Mike England, ‘that for in 2014 and in 2015 we’ve had an interesting shout in rough weather on almost exactly the same day at the end of January.’ And this year, on 30 January, Mike completed his hat trick when the MV Verity, a 91m cargo ship carrying 3,000 tonnes of scrap metal, lost power to its engines 8 miles offshore.

Rough seas and force 8 winds added to the drama. Teaming up, Appledore and Padstow lifeboat crews went out to help and – in a rather unusual turn of events – ended up enlisting the power of a Dutch naval warship.

In their own words, the crews from the MV Verity, Padstow’s Tamar class lifeboat Spirit of Padstow and Appledore’s Tamar class lifeboat Mollie Hunt tell the story of a rescue that lasted over 34 hours:

Kevin Dowle, Captain, MV Verity:

On Wednesday night (27 January) we lost power off of Hartland Point and couldn’t get our engines running again. We called our engineers about getting the engine fixed so that we could continue carrying our cargo to northern Spain. However, after trying all of the engineers’ ideas, the engine still wasn’t running.

From there, it just snowballed – we found oil in the exhaust manifold, a hole in the piston, four valves that had dropped and a hole ripped through our turbo booster. It was a real mess – and with the weather conditions picking up, things were looking like they were going to get a little touch-and-go, so we called the Coastguard and asked for help.

Owen Atkinson, Second Coxswain, Appledore RNLI:

We first heard about the MV Verity on Thursday (28 January) from the Coastguard. At this point, the onboard engineer was trying to fix the engine and get it started again, but there was a chance that we were going to be needed. Knowing that, we began looking at its position and keeping an eye on the communications so that we were up to speed if we were called out.

The next day, we heard that the crew hadn’t managed to fix the engine and had called the Coastguard as they were beginning to drift. The Coastguard had called a tug to tow them to safety, but it was a good 18-20 hours away and – with the rate of their drift – we were probably going to be needed the next day.

We estimated what time it would run aground and knew that we’d be called out the next morning.

However, because of the time it would take us to punch through the sea in those conditions – and because of the risk of being unable to launch at low water (Appledore and Padstow are both tidal stations) – we decided that we’d launch before low water and head to a place near to the ship so that we could get to them quickly when they needed us.

At around 11.10pm, we launched into reasonably choppy seas and headed out to Bideford Bay, not far away from the casualty vessel, but sheltered from the wind and seas. Once we were there, we set up two watches so that everybody could get a little bit of rest. However, if you’ve ever tried to sleep on a lifeboat, you’ll know that it’s not the most comfortable of places!

One of us had the floor, the other two were squeezed into the relative comfort of the casualty cabin – but in those situations, you don’t really sleep anyway, because your senses are heightened and you’re constantly alert. You can cat nap and switch off though, charge your batteries a bit before the shout.

The next morning, at about 6am, we’d all had a couple of hours’ kip. Just like any night that you can’t get to sleep or keep getting woken up, we were all a bit groggy. But as soon as the call came in that we were needed, we all had that extra adrenalin pick-up and were wide awake and ready to go.

Punching into the sea, we set off at a decent speed – around 20-22 knots, and met up with Padstow at the vessel. Once we were there, we got in touch with Alan, the Padstow Coxswain, and decided what to do.

Alan Tarby, Coxswain, Padstow RNLI:

Like Appledore, we’d been monitoring the situation and were prepared to go out on the shout. In the morning, we spoke to the Coastguard, which said that the Verity was 8 miles offshore. We worked out that it was going to be about 4 hours until she hit the shore.

The tug wasn’t going to be there until 5pm, so it was obvious that we were going to be needed to help Appledore with a ship that size. I phoned the Coastguard inspector, said that we were concerned about the boat and we should do something to help.

Heading out, the conditions were ideal and we made it to the vessel in good time. When we got there, we had a word with Appledore and decided that the best thing to do was to put a tow rope on the Verity to try and prevent her from drifting, and then hold her until a tow arrived – or, ideally, turn her a little so that, if she did drift, she’d be clear of Hartland Point.

Because she was so heavy, we needed the power of both lifeboats – but it was too dangerous to attach another tow rope to the Verity, as the two lifeboats would eventually collide in the conditions and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.

Owen Atkinson, Second Coxswain, Appledore RNLI:

Between us and Padstow, we came up with idea to have, essentially, a daisy chain – with a lifeboat towing a lifeboat towing the vessel, which was an interesting idea. It’s something that none of us have ever done or seen before.

Alan Tarby, Coxswain, Padstow RNLI:

Once the tows were attached, we managed to get the ship turned around, which was great because it was a manoeuvre that we’d never done before, and it worked first time. It was actually even more effective than we thought.

We’d asked the skipper to get his engine running (although the boat was stranded, the engine could run and give thrust for around 20 minutes before it cut out) to give us a bit more power and initially assumed that his engine was responsible for turning the boat.

After we’d turned it around though, we heard him over the radio say: ‘Shall I start my engine yet?’ It turned out that the two little lifeboats had turned this 5,000-tonne boat out of harm’s way!

By now, we were 3½ miles off the coast, and we were just holding her there, trying to stop the drift dragging her closer to shore. Towing her was impossible.

Then the Dutch warship – the De Ruyter – arrived. The captain was asking lots of questions on the way; we had to send him photos of the boat. When he arrived, he was absolutely fantastic – he came in, had a look and discussed with what needed to happen.

When he spoke to us, he said he’d take our tow rope and continue the tow, but as he came around our tow parted, meaning that it was easier for him to attach his own tow.

After that, he had a dummy run and then went around in a circle and brought her stern about 9m away from the Verity and fired a rocket line across and just sat there, not getting closer or further away, for about half an hour – the way he did it was incredible, a lovely piece of ship handling, even if the first rocket line didn’t attach.

Kevin Dowle, Captain, MV Verity:

Each of those three runs took around 30 minutes and, by the time they got the rope aboard, we were getting dangerously close to the rocks. If those boys hadn’t held us until it arrived, I dread to think how it could have gone – they gave us a bit of breathing time to get everything sorted. If they hadn’t, I think we’d have lost the old girl on the rocks.

Owen Atkinson, Second Coxswain, Appledore RNLI:

By this time, my crew had been out for almost 17 hours and some were feeling quite unwell. A few hours before, I’d called the Coastguard to arrange a crew change when possible, as this was looking like it was going to be a long shout. Now that the tow had been attached, Padstow could escort them and we could head to Clovelly and change crews.

When we got to Clovelly, the Lifeboat Operations Manager had prepared us all hot drinks and food, which was a nice touch – they didn’t have to do that at all. After a quick chat with Martin Cox (Coxswain at Appledore), we all returned back to our homes, completely ready for our beds.

Martin Cox, Coxswain, Appledore RNLI:

I’d been on holiday, but had spoken to Alan the night before and realised that we might be needed. Because of that, I started working out the logistics of a crew change as we could see that this was going to be a long, ongoing shout.

That day – luckily – four of the crew were on a training course, so I gave them a call and asked when they could get away and let them know what was going on. Basically: ‘How quick can you get back here?’

When I got the call for the second crew to go out, I spoke to Clovelly RNLI, who let us use their kit and station to launch from rather than braving the tides at Appledore. After that, we proceeded out and relieved Padstow so that they could return to the station and we could escort the Verity to Lundy.

Kevin Dowle, Captain, MV Verity:

We didn’t have a clue about the local area, and neither did the Dutch ship, so we used the local knowledge of the Coxswain about where to anchor and where we’d be safest. It was handy to have local experts guiding us to safety.

Martin Cox, Coxswain, Appledore RNLI:

We anchored up and waited at Lundy, setting up watches and waiting for the tug to arrive to take the Verity to Swansea. Eventually, after the tug had arrived, we were stood down but we had to wait for the tide before returning to Appledore.

We didn’t have the most difficult job to do, but after 17 hours of standby and escort duties – especially when the lads had been away on a course all week and had got straight on the boat without returning home – we were all totally exhausted and ready for bed!

Kevin Dowle, Captain, MV Verity:

There’s no two ways about it – the two crews were out there for hours and they did incredibly well. Although we were far too heavy and the conditions were a bit too rough, they managed to hold us still and stop us smashing into Hartland Point.

They were all good lads and they all knew exactly what they were doing. I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess what would have happened if they hadn’t got hold of us. We’re all incredibly grateful for what everybody did. Absolutely 10 out of 10 to all involved.

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