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All hands to the pump

With a small angling boat rapidly taking on water in the North Sea, it took the combined skills of three lifeboat crews to save the vessel and the eight men onboard.

All hands to the pump

Photo: RNLI/Adrian Don

The volunteers on Tynemouth’s all-weather lifeboat were making for home after an exercise with a Coastguard helicopter in June, when they heard the distress call over the radio.

Coxswain Michael Nugent was about to refuel the Severn class lifeboat, but routine was shelved as they headed out to sea again.

The helicopter returned and hovered overhead, while pagers were sounding for Sunderland’s crews, who soon launched their two inshore lifeboats.

'I asked the Coastguard if it was a mayday. They said it wasn’t yet, but it was certainly heading in that direction,' says Sam Clow, Helm of Sunderland’s Atlantic 85 that day.

'The group didn’t have a radio but fortunately it was a lovely day with lots of boats out. They’d attracted the attention of another fishing boat, who’d called for help and were now standing by.'

As they were already afloat, the Tynemouth crew arrived first.

It became clear this wasn’t a moment too soon.

Small angling boat taking on water with crew onboard

Photo: RNLI/Adrian Don

Stemming the flood

'The anglers were fairly panicked and trying to bail out the water with buckets, but it wasn’t doing much. Only three of them had buoyancy aids, and no one had a lifejacket,' remembers Michael.

He quickly brought six of the anglers to the safety of the lifeboat, then two RNLI crew members swapped over with a salvage pump to see if they could make a dent in the water swamping the little craft.

With the pump running, the flooding slowed – but it still wouldn’t stabilise.

'It’s very unusual for the level not to go down at all in a small boat like that,’ Michael explains.

By this point, Sam and the other volunteers from Sunderland had arrived. He could see that the water was right across the deck, at least 30cm deep and going nowhere.

One glance at Coxswain Michael up on the flying bridge and Sam knew it was worth trying the Atlantic 85’s pump too.

With four lifeboat crew members working the two pumps, the water level stabilised at last, and the Tynemouth crew began to tow the stricken boat back to Sunderland Harbour.

The Atlantic 85 followed closely alongside the angling boat, in case the crew onboard needed to evacuate.

Time to investigate

Once in the shelter of Sunderland Harbour, they could look into what had gone wrong.

'It was a case of right, sleeves up lads, what’s happened here?’ says Sam. ‘It turned out the propeller shaft had sheered off and the propeller had swung round and ripped a hole in the hull.'

'You could push a tennis ball clean through it,' adds Michael. 'We improvised and wrapped a bung from the Atlantic 85 in a heavy-duty deck glove, and at last the flow became a trickle rather than a full-on gush!'

Sam and his crew secured the stabilised boat alongside and towed it to a beach upriver with the help of their fellow volunteers on Sunderland’s D class lifeboat, who had also helped transfer the grateful anglers safely to shore.

'They were at least a mile offshore and lucky there were so many boats around. You’re only getting to land from there if you’re an Olympic swimmer,' reflects Michael.

'If we’d launched from the pager it would have taken another 6-8 minutes to get there and they would’ve had a lot more water onboard.

'The two stations worked really well together - it was the two pumps that saved that boat.’