Rope tricks: Tobermory's challenging tow

With a yacht pinned to rocks in 60mph winds and driving rain, Tobermory lifeboat crew would need to quickly overcome some hurdles to save the four people onboard.
Tobermory's Severn class lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Sam Jones

The 2018 summer heatwave took a dramatic turn at the end of July when storms, torrential rain and floods hit the UK and Ireland. The weekend of 28 and 29 July was particularly busy for RNLI lifesavers on the west coast of Scotland, who were hit abruptly by a storm force 10.

Tobermory Coxswain David McHaffie had been keeping a close eye on the forecast and thought his crew would be in for an interesting Saturday night. Crew Member Tony ‘Kiwi’ Spillane remembers: ‘The weather was fine during the day, but the night just blew up out of hell.’ So it was no surprise that their fellow volunteers at Oban were called out just before 10.30pm. Reports said that an 11m yacht, with two adults and two children onboard, had run aground in the storm off the Isle of Seil.

Half an hour later, the Coastguard received another call, this time from a yacht dragging its anchors in Loch Feochan. This shout was also in Oban’s patch but Tobermory’s crew were asked to help while their colleagues dealt with the first.

But the Tobermory lifesavers had barely got into their storm jackets when they were stood down again. An update from the yacht’s skipper said that his anchor was holding and he was OK, for now.

‘A funny feeling’

The volunteers returned home. ‘But I just had this funny feeling,’ says Kiwi. ‘So I stayed up and had a cuppa.’

Come midnight, the Oban crew were returning with the family they had rescued. Then Stornoway Coastguard received more calls – including a mayday from a small motorboat aground at the north end of Lismore, a small island in the Inner Hebrides.

This time, both Tobermory and Oban crewswere alerted. The Tobermory volunteers immediately returned to station and launched their all-weather lifeboat Elizabeth Fairlie Ramsey into the storm. With a south-westerly gusting at around 50mph and rough seas, the journey was lively for the redirected Oban crew too – and for the casualties who were still onboard from the first incident.

Tobermory Crew Member Tony 'Kiwi' Spillane

Photo: RNLI/Sam Jones

Crew Member Tony ‘Kiwi’ Spillane

Reaching Loch Linnhe, the Tobermory crew were diverted to a fourth incident while Oban crew continued to the third. This time, the Coastguard had received a mayday from a yacht in trouble at Loch Aline, about 13 miles south of Tobermory. The two couples aboard were taking it in turns to keep anchor watch and realised they were in danger when it started dragging. Now they were in the shallows, heading for rocks. The skipper was experienced and his yacht sound, but it didn’t have the power to make headway in the conditions.

‘Loch Aline is a beautiful mooring on a good day,’ says Kiwi. ‘But at night, in bad weather, it’s a nasty wee place and there’s no way out.’ On this night, with rough seas and the wind gusting to 60mph, it was definitely the latter. ‘It was grim,’ Kiwi says. ‘The wind was howling over the hill and the rain was horizontal.’

Limited options

By now it was well after 1am, and David McHaffie was getting the full force of that weather in the Severn’s upper steering position. ‘It was a very dark night, with heavy rain and mist, so visibility was poor,’ he says. ‘At least up top I was getting the best possible view.’

With just a few feet of water under the 42-tonne lifeboat, David knew his options were limited: ‘I couldn’t get close enough to the yacht without the risk of crushing her or running aground. So I decided to launch our inflatable Y boat and get its crew to pass a tow across.’

Launching Tobermory's inflatable Y class

Photo: Tobermory RNLI

Coxswain David McHaffie decides to launch Tobermory's inflatable Y boat to pass a tow across

A tow was set up, but it was nigh-on impossible to keep the line taut. And when it turned slack – and then suddenly too tight – the crew knew it had got caught up somewhere.

With all lights now directed to the rear lifeboat deck they could just see the rope disappearing into the pitch dark under the stern. ‘We tried our best to free it, but it wasn’t happening,’ says Kiwi.

With the yacht now virtually on the rocks, time was running out. David told his crew to cut the tow and, once the pressure was released, they were able to quickly retrieve both sections. The Y boat crew then passed over the end attached to the yacht.

Homeward bound

With the tow made fast and the yacht now free, David went about the slow and careful business of towing the casualties to safety. ‘Loch Aline can be a horror to get out of,’ says Kiwi. ‘It has a narrow, twisted entrance lined with rocks, so we had to keep our tow short until we got into the Sound of Mull.’

Tobermory's lifeboat nears home

Photo: Tobermory RNLI

Tobermory's lifeboat, and its tow, nears home

Meanwhile, Oban RNLI had reached their second yacht. The weather there had calmed slightly and the person and dog onboard were no longer in immediate danger. But conditions were unpleasant for the original rescued family still aboard the lifeboat so Oban crew transferred them to a nearby safe haven before returning to the scene. The volunteers then deployed their XP boat, refloated the yacht and escorted it to Glensanda to await calmer weather. Arriving at 4.30am, they picked up the family from the first incident again.

Around 2½ hours after starting their tow, the Tobermory crew brought their casualties safely into Tobermory Harbour. The lifeboat was then refuelled and made ready for service for around 7am. Oban returned to station, dropped off their casualties and departed one more time to help recover the last vessel. They finally returned and were ready for service again around 8am. Combined, both RNLI crews had spent more than 15 hours at sea. 

David McHaffie says: ‘We had some great weather in the summer but the conditions that night were very poor. We’re glad that there was a good outcome for all the yachts in trouble that night.'

'Lifeboating is all about thinking your way out of situations’

Tony says: ‘David did a hell of a job keeping that lifeboat steady. We were right at low tide, so there was hardly any water under her, and we were getting hit by gusts. We had a few challenges but every time something was thrown at us, we figured it out. Lifeboating is all about thinking your way out of those situations.

‘When the tow rope went slack, it fell behind the trim tabs at the back of our lifeboat and got wrapped around the rudder. We didn’t know it at the time but were grateful to know that later. There are far worse things it could have wrapped around, things that would have caused some real damage.

‘The tow back wasn’t that far but, at 5 knots, it took time and patience. The wind started to disappear and, by the time we got back to Tobermory, the sea was flat. It was absolutely bizarre.

‘The worst thing that happened is that we lost 25m of tow rope. Maybe we could chop up the leftovers and sell them as a fundraiser. That rope could certainly tell a few tales!’

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