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Lerwick’s Severn class lifeboat battles through rough seas

A battle against the storm

Lerwick’s Severn class lifeboat Photo: Ryan Leith

7 crew members. 16 hours at sea. Force 10 winds. 3 lives saved.


Howling winds and waves up to 14m high are difficult enough conditions – even for a lifeboat. But when you’re launching to a casualty vessel 60 nautical miles out to sea, that adds even more difficulty, stress and danger. Lerwick Lifeboat Coxswain Stephen Manson shares his story of this epic rescue.

I first joined the crew in October 2018. I saw an advert on Facebook looking for a crew member and it’s always something I’ve wanted to do, so I put my name in the hat. I was crew and then crew/mechanic until 2022, when I became full-time coxswain at the station.

I’ve lived in Shetland my whole life but had no real maritime experience.  I’ve had a little bit of work on salmon farms and work boats, and I had my own little boat for a while, so gained a bit of experience from them. 

Here in Lerwick, we average around 20 shouts a year. They can be anything: missing persons, tow jobs, sinking boats. Sometimes we get called to medical emergencies onboard fishing boats as well.

Stephen Manson, an all-weather lifeboat crew member, smiles at the camera next to a dock

Photo: RNLI/Bob Kerr

Stephen Manson, Coxswain at Lerwick RNLI

Launching into a gale

I was at the lifeboat station when I heard the mayday call on the VHF radio, so I was half expecting to be going out. I was about to go to the shop to get something to eat in anticipation of the shout, but the pager went off just as I put my key in the door to leave!

The mayday call had come from an 18m Danish trawler, Westbank. Its fishing gear had become stuck on the bottom of the seabed. With the rolling seas, they ended up flooding the engine room. They were at the mercy of the sea and taking a beating. A standby vessel was nearby but they were unable to tow, so they stayed there until we could arrive. I had a rough idea of the latitude and longitude, so I knew it was a good bit out – 60 nautical miles.

Because it was such a long way, I made the crew aware of how long we were going to be out so they could let family and friends know. Then they could go and get food and a drink of water on the way. I made sure they took their full all-weather kit in case it got cold and nasty – which it did.  If a crew member has kids to look after or pick up from school, then I try not to take them out. But the crew are always keen to go and I’ve never had anyone walk away from a shout yet.

Seven members of Lerwick lifeboat crew pose for a photo wearing all-weather lifeboat kit

Photo: RNLI/Bob Kerr

L to R: Stephen Manson (Coxswain), Peter Kerr, Craig Webb, John Drummond, Gavin McIntosh, Nathan Mann, Tommy Goudie

The conditions were horrendous. There was a howling gale and really big seas, even in the harbour. The strong south-easterly wind was barrelling straight into the harbour. Right from the get-go we were punching into it, and it never eased off at all.

It was a battle the whole way. I was steering by hand, autopilot wasn’t an option. Everyone was strapped into their seats the whole way there. Things were rolling around the wheelhouse and we couldn’t do anything to secure it. Every time we slowed down to try and secure something, we would go 5 minutes before it ended up back onto the floor. So we gave up.

Exposed to the elements

The journey to the casualty took a lot of concentration. You have to ensure you stay on course and that you’re not getting hit entirely side-on by the waves. It was quite a confused sea, so the waves were hitting us from every direction.

Although the Severn is the biggest boat in the fleet, we felt a very small boat that day. It’s hard not to feel exposed out in these big seas. Considering the size of the waves that were way above the top of the wheelhouse at times, it was a little bit intimidating.

You are trained to keep your concentration. It does get tiring, especially when you’re hand steering, but I was just so focused on getting there and getting the job done, that I didn’t think about anything else.

We had quite a decent location on the trawler. Because their fishing gear was stuck on the bottom of the seabed, they hadn’t drifted too far. We were averaging 10-15 knots, sometimes as low as 6-7 knots because that’s all we could manage. It took us 5 hours to reach them.

A map showing the distance from Lerwick Lifeboat Station to the casualty’s location

Once we arrived on scene, we discovered they had managed to get their backup generator started and were able to get their fishing gear up off the bottom. But I spoke to the captain, and he said there was no way they’d be able to restart their engines. There were three crew onboard but, because of the weather conditions, it was not safe to try and evacuate them. We got a towline across to them on the third attempt and established a tow. Once they were happy, we started making our way back to Lerwick very slowly.

The long journey home

We stayed in constant communication with the casualty as we made our way back to Lerwick, just to make sure they were happy and everything was okay on their end. Especially with them having lost power, we needed to make sure they weren’t taking on water.

On the way back, once the tow had been secured, we took it in turns at the helm. I was knackered from manually steering. It took a lot of endurance for the crew. None of us had really had any food, and there was only one case of water. In seas that rough, you get a lot of snatching of the tow rope, even with the full length out. Snatching is where the tow rope goes slack and then suddenly taut again. You always worry about the tow rope parting and having to establish the tow again. 

By the time we got back to harbour, we had been on the water for 19 hours. I don’t think there’s any amount of training that can prepare you for a shout like that, and it wouldn’t be safe to train in that weather. I try not to punish the crew that often!

Because of the way Lerwick Harbour is, we didn’t get any shelter until we got back to the harbour entrance. We shortened up the tow and one of the Lerwick Harbour tugs came out to take over the tow. We went back to our berth and refuelled, ready to go again if needed. The families of the crew had been in overnight and made sandwiches and cakes for us when we got in, which was nice. 

If we hadn’t been there, then eventually the trawler would have sunk. The crew would have had to abandon to a liferaft and hope that the supply boat that was standing by could pick them up. In seas that rough, they would have been hard to see. In the liferaft, they would have been blown away quite quickly. I fully believe we saved three lives that day.

It’s thanks to your kindness that crews like Lerwick’s are able to face all that the sea can throw at them. Without your support, they wouldn’t have the kit, training and incredible boats that can tackle storms like this. Thank you.