'She went quick': Lerwick trawlermen jump for their lives
With a trawler in trouble off a remote archipelago in Shetland, Lerwick lifeboat crew would need to pull on insider knowledge and all their experience if they were to get the five fishermen to safety.
Coxswain Alan Tarby’s pager went off just before 7am on Friday 3 March. ‘I was awake, drinking my tea,’ he remembers. ‘I didn’t know what the shout was but Malcolm, our lifeboat operations manager, filled me in on the way to the station.'
The Lerwick-registered fishing trawler Ocean Way was taking on water 10 miles east of Out Skerries - a small cluster of islands 23 miles off Lerwick. The Norwegian fish carrier Gerda Saele was already there lending a hand. Her crew had transferred a salvage pump but it was becoming clear that one wasn’t going to be enough.
‘I know the trawler,’ says Alan. ‘And I know her owner, he’s helped us before and he’s a really nice man. Darren Harcus, one of our crew volunteers, works on Ocean Way too. I thought he was aboard so I was pleased to see him arrive at the station. He knows the boat really well.’
There was a breeze running, with a bit of a swell, but it was a clear morning and the fishing boat was still making around 9 knots towards harbour.
At 7.15am Lerwick lifeboat crew launched their Severn class lifeboat Michael and Jane Vernon to meet her, with a salvage pump tested, packed and ready to go. When the lifeboat arrived just after 8am the Coastguard helicopter Rescue 900 was on scene too.
‘The trawler didn’t seem too low in the water,’ says Alan. ‘That was a good sign that she wasn’t too heavily laden.
‘We transferred Darren and our Mechanic John Best with the pump. Darren, of course, knew the boat and crew. He’s a steady sort of fellow, does things calmly. John’s good with the pump, which can be tricky to start if you don’t know it.’
But it wasn’t long before they realised that two pumps weren’t going to do the job either. Water was coming in fast.
Another pump was needed quickly so Alan pulled the lifeboat away from the trawler to safely receive a third from the helicopter.
‘We were about to get it onboard when the fishing crew announced they were preparing to abandon ship,’ says Alan. ‘Then their radio cut out - water must have got in below and blown everything. We didn’t have time to tell them what to do.’
The lifeboat swiftly returned alongside to get the fishermen and RNLI crew off. But suddenly, Ocean Way started to go down.
I’ve never seen a boat sink that quickly. It went from a manageable situation to a disaster in seconds.
‘I’ve never seen a boat sink that quickly,’ says Alan. ‘One minute she looked fine but, as soon as they stopped her, she went quick. The water must have surged forward - that can do a lot of damage. It went from a manageable situation to a disaster in seconds.’
Alan gave the fishermen room to jump into the water. All five dispersed quickly. One had to swim clear to avoid being drawn down by the trawler, one drifted to the bow of the lifeboat, another was dangerously close to her propellers. The lifeboat coxswain didn’t dare move his craft.
‘I had to wait,’ Alan says. ‘That was hard. A couple of them were not such good swimmers and I could see the man behind us being dragged away.’
By now RNLI Crew Members Darren and John were in the water, gathering everyone together. Their crewmates on the lifeboat made fast work of hauling people onboard using the A-frame and strop. Darren and John were the last two to be recovered and Ocean Way sank soon after.
‘It was about 6ºC in that water,’ says Alan. ‘Luckily they were hardy, fit people - tough fishermen. A couple of them were very quiet though, they must have been in shock. We checked them over and gave them dry clothes and warm drinks.’
The lifeboat, her crew and all the fishermen arrived safely in Lerwick Harbour at 9.45am and were met by local paramedics. Once the survivors had been given the all-clear, a band of RNLI volunteers refuelled the lifeboat and made her ready for service again.
‘The lifeboat crew performed very well,’ says Alan, ‘especially Darren and John who were in the water with those men. They’re trained and just do it automatically. The fishermen had done safety training too and were all wearing the correct safety equipment. That made getting them home so much easier.’
‘We all have each other’s backs’
‘I was on the lifeboat that day and transferred to the trawler to help because I know the boat so well,' says Darren. 'I’ve worked on Ocean Way for 5 years and it’s a family business. It’s a small community and we all have each other’s backs.
‘The bottom of the trawler had snagged on something and, before long, water was coming in the scuppers. We thought it a good idea to abandon ship. The skipper took a bit of persuading but once he realised water was coming in over the rails he knew we all had to get off sharpish.
‘We planned to step off onto the lifeboat but there wasn’t time to get everyone off like that. So we jumped - starboard side. As the trawler crew, we had already talked about what we’d do in this sort of situation but never really thought it would happen to us.’
This rescue features in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.