No safe harbour: A Bronze Medal-winning rescue

Three yachtsmen were seeking a safe haven in rough weather, when bad luck nearly cost them their lives.

Port St Mary’s Trent class lifeboat, Gough Ritchie II, powers through the waves

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

More than 20 men and women at Port St Mary had a rude awakening on Saturday 6 November 2021. It was 6am when their pagers sounded and it was pitch black. Experienced volunteers like Mike Keggen and Richard Leigh took it in their stride. They’d just get to the station quickly and safely, and find out soon enough what’s going on. Plus Richard admits he had more basic concerns: ‘Where have I put my trousers?’

Between them, Mike and Richard have more than 72 years of lifeboat volunteering under their belts. That day, Mike was in command of the Trent class all-weather lifeboat Gough Ritchie II and Richard was at the helm of the D class lifeboat Spirit of Leicester. 

Port St Mary’s D class inshore lifeboat, Spirit of Leicester

Photo: RNLI/Port St Mary

It was an early start for the volunteers at Port St Mary

Bad weather and bad luck 

Gathering at the station, the crew all heard that three experienced sailors onboard a 12m yacht were travelling from Liverpool to Ardrossan when the rough weather hit. The sailors had decided to head for some shelter at Port St Mary. It was dark and they didn’t see the lobster pot rope that fouled their rudder and propeller. They drifted towards the Carrick. ‘That’s a big lump of rocks off past the breakwater in Bay Ny Carrickey,’ explains Richard. ‘You can see it, about three-quarters of a mile out from the station.’

‘It was absolute bad luck for those men,’ says Mike. Richard agrees: ‘If it had been daylight, they’d have probably seen the lobster pot line and then avoided it.’ 

Winds were force 5, gusting force 7. The Trent class would handle those conditions with ease, but they were borderline for the inshore lifeboat. Mike and Richard knew they’d need both lifeboats for the rescue – only the D class would be able to get close to the yacht in the shallows. After a careful assessment and authorisation from the lifeboat operations manager, off they went. 

Eight crew members from Port St Mary RNLI line up in front of the harbour

Photo: RNLI/Port St Mary

Mike (centre) and Richard (third from right) with some of the crew from the rescue

The lifeboats launched into conditions that would challenge many of us afloat. Richard describes it as ‘a bit lumpy’ and Mike calls it ‘heading towards rough’. The all-weather lifeboat led the way, protecting the smaller lifeboat from the worst of the weather. 

En route, the mechanic on the all-weather lifeboat communicated with the yachtsmen on the VHF radio. The yacht’s anchor and the lobster pot line were keeping the vessel from crashing onto the Carrick. The yacht was sitting broadside to the waves, getting battered. The swell was already up to about 3m. At any point, the lobster line could snap. ‘That would be the yacht gone,’ states Mike. ‘And those three fellows on the rocks.’ 

A catch-22 situation 

When they reached the scene, the D class crew went in to take a closer look. The stern of the yacht was coming out of the water, so the lifeboat crew could see that the rope was wrapped around the propeller. That meant it couldn’t be removed easily. 

Port St Mary’s D class lifeboat approaches the yacht

Photo: RNLI/Port St Mary

The D class took a closer look and saw rope wrapped around the yacht’s propeller

The lifeboat crew kept calm and talked through their options. They knew time was against them. The weather was getting worse and bigger waves meant more stress on the lobster pot line. A tow might save the crew and the yacht, but taking up the anchor would also increase the chances of the line snapping. Even if the lobster pot line held, the yacht and its crew might still be stuck. ‘It was a catch-22 situation,’ says Richard. 

Mike made the call: ‘I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to get the men off the yacht as quickly as possible.’ 

Evacuating the men onto the D class wasn’t risk-free. Richard explains: ‘The main difficulty was the way the boat was pinned. The lines were running off out to sea, so we had to go around the shallow side to go and get them. That would put us between the boat and the rocks. If the yacht went, we would too.’ 

Richard talked through the plan for evacuating the yachtsmen with the two D class crew before the approach: ‘With two boats next to each other doing different things with the waves, we would put two crew members on one side, to help hold onto the yacht while the yachtsmen climbed down.’ 

Mike had to remain in deeper water, about 50m from the yacht. He positioned the Trent class lifeboat to provide as much shelter as possible for the D class and watched closely. As coxswain, Mike was acutely conscious that he was responsible for the lives of the crew and for the lifeboats. 

Richard felt confident that they could do it: ‘You know you can rely on the lifeboats, kit and training, so was I particularly worried? I’ll be honest, no.’

Abandon ship

The yachtsmen were ready and willing to evacuate; their lives were in the balance. Richard praises the actions of the yachtsmen: ‘They knew exactly what they were doing. They had sensibly called for help early, they had all the right kit on, lifejackets and emergency bags.’ 

‘We got the first chap off without any bother,’ remembers Richard. They took him to the Trent class and the yachtsmen climbed up easily into the safe hands of the all-weather lifeboat crew. 

‘The second time around, I didn’t get it quite right. I had to back off and go in there again,’ says Richard. Back alongside, and at one point the deck of the yacht was towering above the inshore lifeboat. The crew waited for the right moment to grab onto the rails of the yacht allowing the remaining two yachtsmen to slip down into the lifeboat. The three yachtsmen were reunited aboard the Trent class. 

Without delay, the lifeboat crews headed for safe harbour – three lives saved. 

Mike, Richard and the crew were still washing the boats down and refuelling when they heard from the harbour master that the yacht had gone, smashed on the Carrick. The whole crew at Port St Mary extended sympathy to the crew at the loss of their yacht. Mike reflects: ‘After the service, you replay these things in your mind a bit, because it was my decision to take them off and leave the yacht. But the yachtsmen understood.’ 

Take action together

For superb boathandling, seamanship and courage, Richard is to be awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry. Coxswain Mike Keggen, Mechanic Gareth Watt, Lifeboat Operations Manager Sarah Keggen, and Crew Members Laura Cordner, Daniel Grace, Chris Hill, Brian Kelly, Robert Marshall and Mark Pendlebury will receive official commendations. 

Richard stresses how everyone played their part: ‘It’s not just us out on the boat. It’s everybody back at the station, it’s the guys at Belfast Coastguard. It’s the fundraisers rattling a bucket in Solihull or serving cups of tea in Edinburgh. It’s one big effort from everybody.’

Volunteers are the heart of the RNLI and make up 95% of our people. They are ordinary people who do extraordinary things and without them, we couldn’t save lives at sea. 

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