The 18-hour rescue mission
When Islay lifeboat crew launched to a yachtsman in treacherous seas and force 11 winds, they couldn’t have known that their courage would result in a life saved that night - or a Medal for Gallantry.
The call for help came to Belfast Coastguard at 12.15am on Tuesday 16 February 2016, crackling from a yacht’s VHF radio.
Its lone skipper had run aground on the remote, treacherous reef of Skerryvore – close to the most westerly island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.
The Coastguard requested the immediate launch of Islay lifeboat crew, who rushed out of bed and headed to the station in driving wind and rain.
‘I didn’t realise the state outside until I got to my driveway,’ remembers Coxswain David MacLellan. ‘Then I thought: “Uh-oh!" When my father [Islay’s Deputy Launching Authority, Victor MacLellan] told us what we were launching to, I thought: “What’s a yacht doing out there? That’s got to be wrong.”’
Under Coxswain MacLellan’s leadership, Crew Member Duncan MacGillivray took the helm of the all-weather Severn class lifeboat, with Navigator Thomas Coope, Mechanic David McArthur and Crew Member Peter Thomson also onboard.
Powering out to sea, the volunteers soon met 4-6m waves and heavy sleet showers.
‘You need to be constantly checking your position at sea in those conditions,’ explains Coxswain MacLellan, ‘but then our radar failed. It was really challenging without it. You can’t see anything when the lifeboat is going up and down in 8m swells.
'We knew when we were close to Skerryvore because of the reefs. It’s notoriously bad - there are shallow waters, it’s in the middle of nowhere. You have to be aware of what’s coming around the corner, as well concentrating on steering the lifeboat.’
The severity of the wind - now up to violent storm force 11 - was beginning to take its toll inside the lifeboat as well, as two crew members fell ill.
‘There were only five of us on the shout that night so we had to be extra vigilant,’ adds Crew Member Duncan MacGillivray. ‘That pulls you through illness - you get over it quicker because you have to keep going.’
The volunteers were finally approaching Skerryvore Reef, but there was no trace of the yachtsman. ‘Initially, I thought: “He’s gone. Skerryvore’s claimed him,”’ Coxswain MacLellan remembers.
But, in the ferocious winds, the casualty had drifted 5 miles north close to Outer Hurricane Rock – a dangerous area of shoal.
'The skipper looked absolutely spent'
It was 3am by this point and Coastguard rescue helicopter R100 was at the casualty’s new position, helping to guide the lifeboat crew as the Severn class rolled over the breaking waves.
‘The yachtsman was side on, taking the brunt of the conditions … the boat was just rolling,’ recalls Coxswain MacLellan. ‘The hull had taken a real beating where he’d been dragged over the rocks. The skipper looked absolutely spent - he’d had enough.’
With the storm still raging, R100 was forced to stand down and Coxswain MacLellan began to run through his options.
‘I thought: “Do we get him to jump in the water? Do we go in and pull him off the boat?” But you’ve got to think of your crew - the masts were blowing around dangerously,’ he explains.
The coxswain knew the yachtsman would have to be towed into calmer waters immediately. The lifeboat crew prepared a heaving line and tow rope, but then came up against a new problem - the yachtsman couldn’t speak English.
To communicate, the crew would have to rely on an interpreter who was added to the communications system by the Coastguard. Translating added further delay to the rescue - time they didn’t have to spare.
'You never think of giving up'
The volunteers stepped out onto the lifeboat deck, battling heavy sleet, freezing sea spray and crashing waves, to throw their lines across.
‘It was quite horrendous,’ recalls Duncan. ‘We were strapped on to the lifeboat from our lifejackets to keep safe, so we had to form a bit of a production line.'
As the lifeboat continued to roll violently, passing the lines over was becoming almost impossible.
‘You never think of giving up,’ explains Coxswain MacLellan. ‘You just think: “We’ll go again, we’ll go again.”’
And with determination and persistence, the crew members eventually managed to throw the line to the yacht’s cockpit.
‘They did a marvellous job - they really did,’ Coxswain MacLellan says proudly.
The first tow fails - but saves the skipper's life
Starting the tow was now absolutely critical if the yacht was to clear the approaching overfalls of Outer Hurricane Rock. The yachtsman hadn’t properly secured the tow rope, but Coxswain MacLellan had no choice but to try.
He began to tow the vessel slowly, stern first, away from the swell. For a few minutes, the plan began to work - but the line soon became slack and eventually came completely adrift from the yacht.
Remarkably, from the small distance that the lifeboat had managed to make with the tow, the yacht had cleared the imminent danger of the overfalls. That saved the skipper’s life. But the danger wasn’t over.
With the swell continually rising, the crew prepared for another attempt to secure the yacht - but as they did so, a huge wave came crashing down, striking both vessels with force.
‘I was standing right at the doorway when it hit,’ remembers Duncan. ‘You felt the bang, aye!’
The impact caused the lifeboat’s stern to collide with the yacht’s bow - giving the crew their one opportunity to physically pass the heaving line to the yachtsman.
This time they had success - and after some gesturing from the lifeboat crew, the sailor attached the tow rope to his vessel more securely.
Coxswain MacLellan began the tow once again, but luck - and the relentless weather conditions - were against them. The tow failed again.
It was now 6.30am and the winds were still at gale force. With all options exhausted, the lifeboat crew contacted the Coastguard for help.
‘We had four heaving lines on the lifeboat and by the end of it, we’d used them all,’ recalls Coxswain MacLellan.
Extra help arrives
Meanwhile, unbeknown to the Islay crew, pipelay vessel Deep Energy was passing near to the scene.
The Coastguard radioed the Islay crew reporting that the vessel was coming to help, along with the assistance of R100 and the volunteers of Barra Island Lifeboat Station. ‘We had a big sigh of relief,’ remembers Coxswain MacLellan.
'The difference they made was tremendous'
It was 11am by the time Deep Energy arrived on scene and the wind was still blowing at gale force 8.
The vessel skilfully manoeuvred alongside the yacht to provide the Islay crew with a lee for the strong wind. ‘The difference they made was tremendous,’ Coxswain MacLellan recalls. ‘It was like a different day.’
Among the Deep Energy crew was Gavin Hyne, Assistant Mechanic at Buckie Lifeboat Station. Using his RNLI training, Gavin coordinated the transfer of the casualty from the yacht to the ship, where the yachtsman was winched to safety.
Thanks to the crews of the two lifeboats, the helicopter and Deep Energy, the sailor was finally out of danger.
The Islay crew could now begin their arduous journey home. Meanwhile, the Barra lifeboat volunteers attempted to secure the yacht and bring her back to shore. But with the strong winds and heavy seas working against them, it proved too difficult and the volunteers had to stand down and head back to station.
The Islay crew were finally back on land at 6.20pm - 18 hours after the initial launch.
Recognition for their valiant efforts
For his exemplary situational awareness and courageous leadership, Coxswain David MacLellan is awarded the Bronze Medal for Gallantry.
His four crew members - Duncan MacGillivray, Thomas Coope, David McArthur and Peter Thomson - receive Framed Letters of Thanks from the RNLI Chairman.
Captain Martin Porter of the Deep Energy pipelay vessel also receives a Framed Letter of Thanks from the RNLI Chairman.
Buckie Crew Member Gavin Hyne receives an RNLI signed Letter of Appreciation from the Operations Director for his skilful conduct in managing the transfer of the casualty.
The pilot and crew of rescue helicopter R100 also receive a Letter of Appreciation from the Operations Director.
And the owners of Deep Energy receive a Letter of Appreciation from the RNLI Chief Executive.