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Lochinver and Thurso in rescue relay

When the crew of a stricken cargo boat found themselves pushed towards Cape Wrath in treacherous Winter seas, two lifeboats were called into the gale.

Coxswain David MacAskill led the Lochinver crew during the 13-hour rescue - an act of skill and courage that’s earned him an RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry.

It was around 8pm on 7 December when the crew of Norholm - a live fish carrier - contacted Stornoway Coastguard to say their 32m vessel’s engine had failed.

They were drifting rapidly towards the rocks of Cape Wrath, the UK mainland’s most north-westerly point. The four crew onboard had tried dropping anchors to keep their boat away from the rugged shoreline, but their attempts were no match for a growing westerly gale and 10m-high seas.

Stornoway Coastguard requested the launch of Lochinver’s all-weather lifeboat, shadowed by a Coastguard helicopter in case the cargo crew abandoned ship. Within 2 hours, the lifeboat volunteers were at the scene.

They lent a hand trying to restart the stricken engine, but to no avail. With the shore looming closer, they decided to attach a tow rope and pull Norholm away from danger.

Stuart Gudgeon, Mechanic and Deputy Second Coxswain on the Lochinver lifeboat says: ‘Our aim was just to get the vessel away from Cape Wrath and hold her out at sea – in those conditions with the weather against us, there’s no way we could have towed her to a safe shore nearby. Norholm is a big vessel but sometimes we were just two boat lengths away and still losing sight of her behind the waves. It was a miracle our towline held.’

Lochinver Mechanic Stuart Gudgeon

Photo: RNLI/Andrew Stewart

Lochinver Mechanic Stuart Gudgeon

As Lochinver’s crew travelled parallel with the coast, they reached the farthest reaches of their patch. So, at 1.27am, Thurso’s all-weather lifeboat crew launched to take over. A severe gale with heavy hail, thunder and lightning was on their heels.

Thurso Coxswain William ‘Wing’ Monroe says: ‘The storm that hit right about the time we arrived at the Norholm (around 4am) was one of the worst I’ve seen for a long time. On our way out, we hugged the coast as much as we could for shelter, but eventually we had to go out to open seas, where the swell was around 8m. It was horrendous going and all seven crew in the lifeboat were really knocked about.’

After a challenging but well-executed line transfer, Thurso took over towing duties and battled through the mountainous swells to pull Norholm round the headland. With the cargo ship in a more sheltered area, the Coastguard emergency tugboat Herakles picked up the tow. It was a tired but safe fishing crew that eventually made it to Stromness harbour with the help of a fourth boat – the Voe Viking – at just after midnight on 9 December.

Meanwhile, the volunteer lifeboat crews were recovering after their tough, but successful part in the rescue – Lochinver’s crew having arrived back at their station at 7.15am, and Thurso at 11.20am. ‘Both crews had a long, arduous night,’ adds Stuart. ‘It pushed the lifeboats to their limits.’

For his courage and determination in extremely difficult conditions, Coxswain David MacAskill is to be awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry. Mechanic Stuart Gudgeon, Navigator Robert Kinnaird and Crew Members James MacAskill, John K Templeton, Joseph Mackay and Lachlan D MacAskill will receive a letter of thanks from the RNLI's Chairman.

It's through vital communication with you that we can give volunteer crews like Lochinver and Thurso everything they need to continue saving lives.