4.10am. Wednesday 8 August. Full-time Coxswain Stuart Adams is woken by his pager. There has been a collision in the English Channel and Dungeness RNLI has been requested to launch. Stuart quickly heads to the lifeboat station and prepares his crew to launch the Shannon class lifeboat The Morrell. They launch and make their way 4 miles south-west of Dungeness Point.
Having served for 41 years with the RNLI, both as a volunteer and as full-time coxswain, Stuart knows one thing to be true: you can never predict what you will face on a shout. ‘The information we had received was that two yachts had collided,’ recalls Stuart. ‘When we approached the scene, we could see a small coaster. We assumed it was lying with the yachts. But as we got closer, it became clear that the coaster had collided with a catamaran.’
The 2,000-tonne coaster dwarfed the catamaran, and the collision only had one winner. To make things more complicated, there was no contact with the coaster, and the two crew of the catamaran had lost their VHF set. ‘We weren’t sure of the condition [of the catamaran],’ says Stuart. ‘We could see it was clearly damaged, but weren’t sure if it was taking on water.’
Stuart decided to get two lifeboat crew onboard the catamaran to assess the situation. Years of experience came into play as he expertly manoeuvred the lifeboat alongside the catamaran. The two crew transferred across.
‘First, I wanted them to make sure the two sailors were okay,’ Stuart says. ‘Amazingly, there were no injuries. They were just badly shaken up.’
The catamaran itself was less lucky. Its mast and rigging had become entangled with the coaster. The longer it stayed caught, the more damage it would sustain. The crew of the coaster managed to cut some wires, allowing the catamaran to drift free. But another problem quickly became apparent.
A little improvisation
‘Where it was severely damaged down one side, the two hulls were starting to come apart,’ Stuart recalls.
Unable to secure a stable tow, the two lifeboat crew worked to get the engine going, then brought the catamaran to smoother waters. There, the lifeboat transferred two more crew members onboard. ‘We weren’t sure what would happen next,’ Stuart admits. ‘We had to come up with a solution to lash them together enough to get them into port.’
Using all their ingenuity, they managed to secure the two hulls together with rope from the casualty vessel and rig up a bridle. ‘The discussion then was whether to beach or tow it to Dover. We decided to take it to Dover, a 2½-hour passage.’
They were greeted at the entrance by the harbour master and escorted into to the safety of the visitors’ berth. Without the lifeboat volunteers’ assistance, it could have all been very different.
‘We’ve been to many collisions over the years,’ says Stuart, ‘but I’ve never seen two vessels entangled like that. The two sailors were very pleased to see us that morning.’
Stuart’s navigator on this call out was Natalie Adams, his daughter. And the family connection doesn’t stop there, with his son Jason also on the crew. ‘They are always very professional at sea, Stuart says. ‘But I don’t tend to take all three of us on a shout. If it’s a rough one, or if the conditions are nasty, I do tend to leave one of them behind. Normally they take it in turns, but sometimes they both will want to go!’
This story has a happy ending, but collisions like this often end in tragedy. Having worked on the English Channel during a long RNLI career, Stuart knows a thing or two about staying safe on the water: ‘It’s important to keep proper look-outs on watch at all times, especially in the early hours of the morning when it’s just getting light and people are tired. No matter if you are inshore or further out, you must keep a look-out as collisions like this can be easily avoided.’
For more advice when you're out on the water, visit RNLI.org/safety.