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Dismasted on Loch Ness

Two panicked families, a crew member’s first shout, and a slowly cooking crumble. Life on Loch Ness is never dull when you wear RNLI yellow.

Dismasted on Loch Ness

Photo: RNLI/Loch Ness

For Linda Izquierdo-Ross, the call couldn’t have been more badly timed. ‘I was hosting a dinner party and I’d just put dessert – an apple and bramble crumble – in the oven,’ she says, smiling. ‘I can’t repeat my first reaction!’

The party would wait; Linda was soon racing to Loch Ness Lifeboat Station. ‘I’ve been on quite a few shouts, but my heart always starts pounding,’ she confesses.

With Linda on the lifeboat that day were Helm Malcolm ‘Malky’ McNaught and newcomer David Ferguson, whom Malky had been training moments earlier.

At first, the shout seemed straightforward – if a little unusual.

‘We saw this empty family boat drift across the bay until its anchor caught on something,’ says Lifeboat Operations Manager Joanna Stebbings. ‘It hadn’t been secured properly. The family had taken a dinghy to shore and cycled up to Urquhart Castle. Then they looked down, saw their boat drifting, and rushed down again!’

‘We got to the boat before them,’ says Linda. ‘David boarded it. But as he did, a second shout came in, this time to “a dismasted yacht southwest of Urquhart Castle”. The boat was empty; no danger. So we called David back and headed out.’

‘The water was choppy,’ recalls Linda. ‘Wind was about force 4–5 and we bounced through the waves.

‘Getting there, we saw half the mast in the water. Malky decided I had more experience of yachts, so I climbed aboard first.

‘The yacht’s skipper was an experienced sailor. When the mast broke, he got his family below deck to don extra safety gear, then called for help. He kept the engine off in case the propeller snagged. I had to cut the stays with bolt cutters. We couldn’t save the mast, so David and I sent it to Nessie.

‘It was precarious, but it could have been a lot worse. Afterwards, the skipper’s wife told me she’d been extremely frightened. Her daughter had been with her on deck. They were lucky they weren’t hit by the mast or breaking wood. If they’d ended up in the water ... ’ Linda trails off. ‘Well, Loch Ness is 6°C; a whole new world of cold water shock. Thankfully, the skipper did all the right things. Not every shout goes that way.’

This shout, however, wasn’t over. ‘We checked the yacht had propulsion, and escorted it towards a berthing point until we were stood down by Aberdeen Coastguard.

‘After that, we went back to the first boat. The family were in it when we arrived. We checked their boat was safe and stood by as they pulled up the anchor and motored into the harbour. Then we returned to the station for a cuppa and debrief. By that point we were all very sweaty!’

‘Loch Ness is like an inland sea,’ reflects Joanna. ‘Every day here is a learning curve. We’d never had a dismasted yacht before. And you can’t train to cut a stay wire. Otherwise, we’d have some very upset boat owners.’

‘I was definitely glad to have my gear,’ adds Linda. ‘Whenever a rope – or a metal stay wire – under tension snaps, you don’t know where it’s going to go. So my visor was down. I like my eyes as they are!’

Asked what she learned that day, Linda says: ‘That David Ferguson, who had never been on a shout before, was a good crew mate.’

And what of the crumble?

‘Oh it was fine!’ says Linda, breaking out into another grin. ‘I even had time to shower before dessert and get rid of that sweaty smell!’

David Ferguson: 'Out of the frying pan - and onto the water!'

'It was surreal. I finish my fitness test, and seconds later I'm kitting back up for my first shout. Out of the frying pan - and onto the water!

'It's such an adrenaline rush. I was excited - but also nervous. I wondered: am I ready to be able to help people?

'At first it didn't sound too worrying. Then we heard about the yacht. The waves down the loch were so high; the yacht was getting battered. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the family. Jumping aboard was daunting, but my training taught me to keep calm. I tried my best to comfort the casualties and also help Linda. Looking back, it's a bit of a blur.

'Afterwards, I was buzzing - helping those people was so rewarding. Occasionally one of the family comments to say well done on our Facebook page. They obviously appreciated our help, and that's really special for me.'