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Into the storm

Big seas are nothing new to Stornoway lifeboat crew, in the Outer Hebrides. But a particularly vicious storm brought a challenge one November night – with two men waiting to be saved.

Stornaway's Severn class lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The wind is blowing a storm force 10. And you’re just drifting off to sleep, shortly before midnight, when your pager sounds.

‘I live right on the seafront and when I woke up the windows were shaking,’ recalls Stornoway Second Coxswain David MacKinnon. ‘When the weather’s like that, you’re hoping the incident will be nearby.’ Unfortunately for David and his volunteer crew, on 2 November 2018 the people in danger were 14 miles away, due south, straight into the weather.

The 24m fish farming vessel Nitrox had fouled her propeller while at work in the narrow Loch Lemreway. Powerless, and with two men onboard, she was blown across the loch towards the rocky shore. In a stroke of luck, Nitrox drifted straight into another vessel, which was holding on her mooring, for now. In howling wind and driving rain, the Nitrox crew managed to tie their floating workplace on to the moored boat. They radioed for help and waited nervously, knowing that a ferocious gust could rip the two boats from their shared mooring at any moment.

Back in Stornoway, David selected his most experienced crew, launching the Severn class lifeboat Tom Sanderson at 12.05am. Heading out of Stornoway, Crew Member Ross Hall underestimated what he was in for: ‘The weather’s poor up here quite a lot. It was a bit wilder than usual, but I wasn’t thinking it was going to be significantly so.’

Second Coxswain David MacKinnon

Photo: RNLI Stornoway

Second Coxswain David MacKinnon

His first clue came at the harbour entrance. ‘It’s narrow and shallow there,’ he says, ‘so what that did to the sea was stand it up – we’re talking 10m waves. We went from a serene glide within the harbour to chaos, and I was as scared as I’ve ever been on a boat.’

Making way

Once out into the Minch (the main body of water between Harris and the Scottish mainland), conditions were a little better than at the harbour mouth, but not much. Seas were still peaking around 7m, and the lifeboat was heading straight into 50 knots of wind.

‘We got a battering,’ David admits. ‘The Minch is notorious in a south-south-easterly. It’s got very high waves, with very little time in between them. It was a vicious sea that night. The lifeboat was pushed off one way, then straight the other way.’

‘It was the most uncomfortable, difficult making way I’ve ever done,’ says Ross. ‘It was exhausting. We couldn’t make straight southerly progress; we had to tack along diagonally. The Minch is a well-known stomach breaker – you get wave after wave and a relentless pounding.’

A passage that would usually take 30 minutes took almost 2 hours. Getting from the Minch into Loch Lemreway, where Nitrox was mercifully still secured to the other boat, meant negotiating another churning harbour entrance – this one opening to the roaring south. By now, the storm had strengthened, with force-11 gusts. All the crew could see out the windows was white spray and darkness.

Navigating with radar alone, they crossed into the loch. ‘We got in,’ says David, ‘but it took a lot of concentration.’

Clearing the maelstrom, visibility was still poor. And what the Stornoway volunteers could see didn’t look good. Conditions were far too rough to attempt a tow, so they would have to save Nitrox’s crew the old-fashioned way: by going alongside and grabbing them.

The Stornoway Severn class lifeboat Tom Sanderson on a calmer day!

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The Stornoway Severn class lifeboat Tom Sanderson on a calmer day!

Close manoeuvres

The main difficulty was the impact of high wind and waves on manoeuvrability. ‘I would have preferred to go in from the west side so we’d have shelter from the weather,’ says David. ‘But there were a lot of moorings and other ropes.’ He would have to go in from the south, keeping the weather astern. And he’d need every ounce of the twin engines’ 3,200 horsepower to maintain control while turning east, exposing the lifeboat’s side to the violent gusts while positioning her starboard shoulder right up against Nitrox.

David took the helm at the Severn’s upper steering position, exposed to the elements but with much better visibility. Four crew members were out on deck, to help the men jump across. Ross was in the navigator’s seat down in the wheelhouse – drier for sure, but with just as much responsibility: ‘My job was to make sure we weren’t going too close to land or another boat on any side. It was a close, confined area, so I was using the radar, the plotter and the windows – an extra pair of eyes for the coxswain while he was making approaches. 

‘He was trying to get in during a lull in the wind and then keep us in position so we didn’t end up broadside to the wind. He was reasonable and cautious, but also bold and decisive when he needed to be. We scratched Nitrox a wee bit, but that was a small price to pay. Then once we were up against it, we used engine power to hold ourselves there.’

The first approach was aborted when the crew spotted a large piece of metal sticking out of Nitrox, right where they were planning to go. David wasn’t going to give up. A number of approaches are expected in situations like this, while helms get a feel for how the lifeboat is handling and reacting to specific conditions. 

‘On one approach we were just there, but there was a big squall and I was already flat out,’ says David. ‘There was no power left, so I aborted that one, keeping the lifeboat as safe as possible.’

Get onboard

It was on the fourth attempt that the younger of the two Nitrox crew was able to jump across, into the waiting arms of the Stornoway volunteers. The older of the two was a touch more nervous, and on the sixth attempt the lifeboat crew got close enough to grab him and help him aboard. ‘They were desperate to get off,’ Mechanic Martin Murray recalls. ‘They’d had enough.’ The fish farmers were relieved, and a little shaken, but otherwise fine. 

‘Once we had the casualties onboard, the main concern was getting out of the loch,’ says David. ‘There are no charts, so we were relying on local knowledge, and it was a tight spot. I ran down below and took the wheel, and made sure everybody was briefed and belted up. It was very rough, but we made it. And once we got out into the Minch and put our stern to the weather, it was a different day.’ Ross agrees: ‘The way home was a pleasure cruise compared with the way out!’

Going with the wind and the waves made the return journey quicker as well as smoother. The crew arrived back in Stornoway at 3.40am, and handed the two men into the care of coastguards. Once the lifeboat was cleaned down, refuelled and ready for service, it was back to bed for a few hours. Even the still-rattling windows couldn’t keep the exhausted volunteers awake.

For his role in this outstanding service, Coxswain David MacKinnon received a Framed Letter of Thanks from the Council of the RNLI Chair. Mechanic Martin Murray and Crew Members Ruaraidh Ferguson, Ross Hall, Gavin Maciver, John MacLeod and Norman Matheson were presented with Letters of Thanks from the RNLI Chief Executive.

‘A great balance between power and speed’

Second Coxswain David MacKinnon says: 'The Severn class lifeboat is an excellent sea boat for its size. It’s very capable, with a great balance between power and speed. And we needed power that night! It’s the first time I’ve driven the boat flat out on both engines. I was very impressed with how it handled in the close confines of Loch Lemreway, as well as with the power and balance. It’s had its engines upgraded, and the new engines respond to commands a lot quicker, which made a big difference. The Severn is an incredible boat.'

A donation today, a lifeboat for decades

Our biggest lifesaver needs your help. For more than 20 years, lifeboat volunteers from the wild Atlantic to the chilly North Sea have relied on Severn class lifeboats – the biggest, most robust craft available. But she can’t go on forever.

With your help, we can give the lifeboat a new lease of life. The Severn class hull, the main body of the boat, is strong enough to help crews face the storm for decades to come. By refitting the lifeboat with new onboard gear and technology, she can carry on bringing crews and the thousands of people they rescue, safely home. Donate today to the Save Our Severns appeal.

‘A bit of a buzz’

‘The call had a bit of everything,’ David says. ‘Big storms are bad enough, though we’re used to them. Add the manoeuvring, and attempting that rescue in those conditions in that confined space. I’ve been on the crew for 25 years, and I’ve been out on many bad nights with proper storms of wind, but this was the most challenging call I’ve had. The crew were excellent, and showed great teamwork. It’s testament to the training that they do.’

Coxswain David MacKinnon and crew received recognition for the outstanding service

Photo: Eilidh Whiteford

Coxswain David MacKinnon and crew received recognition for the outstanding service

Ross adds: ‘I’ve got a wee tendency to get seasick, but this night was just so rough I think the adrenaline prevented my stomach from giving in! But for intensity and severity this was by far the worst shout. My main memory of that night is of the passage on the way down – just brutal. But we saved the people and it was a team effort. That’s what keeps us responding to the pager: you get satisfaction out of helping people – and a bit of a buzz.’

You can help save lives at sea with a donation today. From kit to crew training to kids’ education, you’ll be making a real difference to our volunteers – and the people they save.

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