Saving the Nafsiporos: 50 years on from one of the most epic rescues in RNLI history

Drifting in a raging storm in the middle of the Irish Sea, the crew of the stricken Greek freighter, Nafsiporos, feared they’d never see their families again. Now 50 years on, one of the sailors thanks the lifeboat crews who saved his life.

Painting of the Nafsiporos rescue

Artist: K Stone

‘Thanks, thanks, thanks. I’m alive because of these people. I make family and I make grandkids because of these people. So thanks, thanks, thanks.’

Captain Anestis Rokopoulos was Second Officer of the Nafsiporos. Now 73, hear Anestis’ moving account of what happened that day in our short film - one of four specially made to commemorate the 50th anniversary.

The night of the Nafsiporos rescue

It’s only 3½ weeks until Christmas. The crew onboard the Nafsiporos, a Greek cargo ship, are preparing to get underway after a week’s stay in Liverpool where the ship’s festive cargo of oranges, grapefruits, dried figs and nuts was unloaded.

Next stop is Belfast to pick up potatoes for Cyprus and then back to Piraeus in Greece. The end of the voyage is in sight and crew members’ thoughts are turning to Christmas with loved ones at home.

They set off on Thursday 1 December 1966. En route, a violent storm sets in and Captain Angelo Katsoufis decides to take shelter in Douglas Bay, Isle of Man.

After 20 hours, the ship sets out to cross the Irish Sea, despite the continuing storm. As soon as the crew heave up the starboard anchor, the chain link breaks and the anchor is lost.

‘The ship - being unladen - was too small and light to cope,’ recalls Second Officer Anestis Rokopoulos. ‘There was an imbalance.’

‘We were at the mercy of the sea’

Within an hour, the Nafsiporos was totally out of control. Her engines couldn’t cope and at times her propellers and rudder were being lifted clear of the water.

‘We were at the mercy of the sea’, says Anestis, who remembers being on the bridge of the 1,287-ton ship with Able Seaman Haralambos Lemperos as she pitched and rolled furiously. She was listing to as much as 30 degrees.

There was only one thing they could do: they sent out a Mayday as the ship was blown by the severe north-westerly gale toward the coast of Anglesey.

Nafsiporos rescuee Anestis Rokopoulos with his family. Left to right: wife of Anestis Rokopoulos, Panagiota (grandaughter), Anestis Rokopoulos, Dion Theodorou (nephew of other rescuee). Rescue of the Greek vessel Nafsiporos by Moelfre and Holyeahd lifeboats in December 1966.

Photo: Aram Atkinson

Nafsiporos rescuee Anestis Rokopoulos with his family

Finding the Nafsiporos

Douglas lifeboat crew were the first to respond to the epic mission of finding the Nafsiporos - a mission that would see them braving the storm for over 10 hours.

Despite heading out at a full speed of 8½ knots in their Watson class motor lifeboat, R.A. Colby Cubbin No.1, they never caught up with the Nafsiporos.

The force 11 winds were too great and had reduced visibility to less than 457m.

While the Douglas crew had no choice but to turn back, Holyhead volunteers were on their way.

Meanwhile back on the Nafsiporos, Haralambos (or Babis as he was fondly known) and a fellow crew member tried to hoist a signal flag to help the ship get spotted.

They lashed themselves together and inched along the deck using rope around the guard rails for extra security. Conditions meant they could only hoist the flag up to 2m high. But this still made all the difference.

It meant the Shackleton aircraft flying overhead could guide Holyhead lifeboat crew to the ship through the 10m high waves.

By this point, the lifeboat crew had been battling the extremely rough conditions for 3 hours after launching in their Barnett class lifeboat, St Cybi (Civil Service No.9).

A Russian timber ship, Kungurles, was also on the scene ready to help.

Holyhead's Barnett class lifeboat St Cybi

Photo: RNLI

Holyhead's Barnett class lifeboat, St Cybi

Hazards ahead

The Nafsiporos was now dangerously close to the Anglesey coast and less than half-a-mile from the buoy marking the submerged Ethel Rock.

With Holyhead lifeboat standing by, two attempts were made by the Russian crew to secure a towline to the drifting ship, but each time the line broke due to the ship’s constant pitching and rolling.

In the end, the Kungurles captain had no choice but to leave the area for his own crew’s safety, bidding the Nafsiporos crew ‘goodbye and good luck’.

In a last-ditch attempt to secure the ship, the crew of the Nafsiporos let go their port anchor. It eventually took hold at just a quarter-of-a-mile from the turbulent shallows of the notorious rocky islet of West Mouse.

The rescue mission steps up

Conditions were getting worse. The wind speed had increased to 100mph. The Nafsiporos was rolling up to 35 degrees in the turbulent waters. And with the sun now setting, Holyhead lifeboat crew had to work quickly to evacuate the Greek seamen before the darkness hampered the rescue mission.

Once they understood the lifeboat’s plans to evacuate the Nafsiporos, the Greek crew dropped the pilot ladder down the starboard side.

Anestis was put in charge of overseeing the evacuation. He chose the youngest first. They were to go down the ladder, one by one, in lifejackets with Anestis being the last person. The captain and three others were to stay onboard.

The Greek crew watched anxiously as Holyhead Coxswain Thomas Alcock brought the lifeboat round the stern of the Nafsiporos to the starboard side.

At the same time, Moelfre lifeboat crew arrived on the scene. They’d just got back from a 6-hour shout in the appalling conditions when they received the call to assist Holyhead.

Standing on the bridge of the Nafsiporos, Chief Engineer John Patsoulas remembers with great emotion the message he heard over the radio from the Holyhead lifeboat:

‘You will see your ladies and babies at Christmas.’

The crew of Holyhead's St Cybi lifeboat: Graham Drinkwater, Jackie Hughes, Will Jones, Eric Jones, Brian Stewart

Photo: RNLI/Nathan WIlliams

The crew of the Holyhead lifeboat St Cybi (L-R: Graham Drinkwater, Jackie Hughes, Will Jones, Eric Jones, Brian Stewart)

Disaster strikes - twice

Suddenly, the Nafsiporos rolled to starboard. Coxswain Alcock drove St Cybi full ahead with the wheel hard to starboard to get clear but the ship caught the port side of the lifeboat, causing considerable damage.

To make things worse, one of the lifeboats onboard the Nafsiporos had come loose and was now hanging precariously over the side of the ship, making it even more difficult for both the Holyhead and Moelfre lifeboats to come alongside the ship safely.

Realising he needed to oversee the rescue from the foredeck, Coxswain Alcock asked RNLI Inspector Lieutenant Commander Harold Harvey to take the wheel.

As one of the Nafsiporos crew members appeared on the ladder, Lt Cdr Harvey seized the moment. Displaying outstanding boathandling skills, he manoeuvred the lifeboat alongside while the crew on the foredeck grabbed the man and pulled him aboard.

Despite the lifeboat being tossed around by the heaving sea, Lt Cdr Harvey managed to hold her steady while the crew pulled another four sailors off the ladder.

Painting by K Stone of the rescue of the Nafsiporos by the Moelfre and Holyhead lifeboats

Photo: RNLI

Painting by K Stone of the rescue of the Nafsiporos 

But then disaster struck again. The rope holding the ship’s lifeboat snapped. The Holyhead lifeboat crew managed to leap clear before the boat came crashing down onto the deck.

Miraculously, no-one was injured and, undeterred, the crew began clearing the debris to make another rescue attempt. But there was no need.

Moelfre Coxswain Richard ‘Dic’ Evans was bringing the Moelfre Watson class motor lifeboat, Watkin Williams, alongside the Nafsiporos.

It took all of Coxswain Evans’s might and skill to hold the lifeboat in position as 10 more sailors were plucked from the ladder to the safety of the lifeboat.

'He was like a sea wolf,' says Anestis. 'He gave all the orders.'

With Captain Katsoufis and his three remaining crew members still refusing to abandon ship, the two lifeboats made way for Holyhead. The Holyhead crew only stopped long enough to have a cup of tea before launching once again into the storm and pitch black darkness to stand by the Nafsiporos overnight.

24 hours later

By 7am the next day, Dutch tug Utrecht arrived to tow the Nafsiporos back to Liverpool.

The exhausted Holyhead lifeboat crew finally returned to station an hour later, 24 hours after the whole rescue mission had begun.

A group of RNLI medallists in 1967, including crew members from the Nafsiporos rescue

Photo: RNLI

A group of RNLI medallists in 1967, including crew members from the Nafsiporos rescue

An extraordinary rescue

50 years on and the Nafsiporos rescue remains one of the most outstanding RNLI rescues ever performed.

Given the challenging conditions that day, it is testament to the courage and exceptional seamanship of the Holyhead and Moelfre lifeboat crews that no lives were lost.

The lifeboat crews were reunited with their families. And, true to the Holyhead crew’s words, the Greek seamen were reunited with their ‘ladies and babies’, although not in time for Christmas - which they had to spend in Liverpool.

After disembarking the Nafsiporos in Piraeus, Anestis, Babis and John never saw each other again until they were reunited in October 2014.

The emotional reunion saw the men sharing precious photos of their families and grandchildren; and for that they will always be grateful to the RNLI.

 Watch the 1966 Holyhead crew talk of their memories during the Nafsiporos rescue: