Bravery of Lochinver lifeboat crew celebrated with RNLI awards

Lifeboats News Release

The Coxswain of Lochinver lifeboat and his volunteer crew have been recognised for their part in saving the lives of four fishermen whose stricken boat was in danger of being swept onto rocks in gale force winds.

Coxswain David MacAskill (47), is to be awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry – one of the charity’s highest accolades – for his courage and determination in extremely difficult conditions.

His six crew members, including his nephew and son, will also be recognised for their part in the rescue. Mechanic Stuart Gudgeon (35), Navigator Robert Kinnaird (40), Crew Member James MacAskill (40), Crew Member John K Templeton (42), Crew Member Joseph Mackay (24) and Crew Member Lachlan D MacAskill (20) will receive a Letter of Thanks from the Chairman of the Institution for the same rescue.

Gale force winds were pushing the fish carrier, Norholm, towards a dangerous and rocky shore of Cape Wrath when Coxswain MacAskill and his crew launched their all-weather lifeboat Julian and Margaret Leonard into rough seas and darkness on 7 December 2014.

They braved up to 10 metre seas, thunder, lightning and hail to reach the four people on board the disabled vessel. After battling against the strong winds and waves to attach a tow line, the lifeboat crew managed to tow it clear of danger.

Despite the lifeboat and Norholm reaching more sheltered waters, the drama was not over – the tow line broke twice and the crew continued to battle to save the trawler as the weather continued to worsen.

With Thurso lifeboat joining them, the tired crew of Lochinver lifeboat passed the tow to their colleagues and returned to their lifeboat station in the morning of 8 December - nearly 12 hours after they first launched.

After the rescue the Norholm made a substantial donation to the RNLI and praised the Lochinver lifeboat crew for their bravery and quick response in saving their lives.

Coxswain MacAskill has been on the Lochinver crew for 26 years during which time he has received several letters of commendation from the charity.

He said: ‘This was the most difficult shout we have had due to the size of the boat, the weather conditions and where the boat was positioned. The ship had two anchors out but they were not holding her and there was real danger she could run aground.

‘Afterwards all the volunteers on the Lochinver crew were absolutely exhausted. I never expected to receive a medal, I didn’t join the RNLI to go for medals, but what this medal means is that it is an honour for the station and the crew as a whole to receive something like this.’

His nephew, Lochinver’s harbourmaster and lifeboat volunteer,Joe MacKay, recalled: ‘We knew it was a scabby night but it was not until we got there that the reality of the situation hit us. It was a horrendous reality check to realise what we were going to have to do to save that boat.’

This is the first time in Lochinver’s nearly 50-year history that the station has received such an award for saving lives at sea. It is the seventh Bronze Medal to be awarded in Scotland in the last 16 years.

George Rawlinson, RNLI Operations Director, said: ‘The Lochinver crew faced appalling conditions during this service. When a lifeboat boat is pitching and rolling beneath you it takes huge effort to also assess a hazardous situation and making difficult decisions is incredibly challenging. Coxswain MacAskill did all this while skilfully manoeuvring the lifeboat, ensuring that both his crew and his attention to the Norholm was to the highest standards of seamanship.

‘The bravery and determination of Coxswain MacAskill and his crew saved the captain and crew of the Norholm. I’d like to thank them all for their commitment and dedication to saving lives at sea and congratulate them on their well-deserved awards.’

Detailed rescue report

At 7.59pm on Sunday 7 December 2014, Stornoway Coastguard received a distress call – the boat Norholm with four people on board had lost all power and was drifting towards Cape Wrath in gale force winds and rough seas.

A little while later, at 8.39pm, the volunteers at Lochinver Lifeboat Station launched the all-weather lifeboat Julian and Margaret Leonard under the command of Coxswain David MacAskill and six other crew members.

Once out of the harbour, the lifeboat crew faced fierce winds and rough seas which became worse as they rounded Stoer Head. Coxswain MacAskill skilfully negotiated a dangerous side-on swell that made conditions on board challenging and uncomfortable.

As the lifeboat navigated through the worsening weather, the crew of the Norholm put out anchors to slow the Norholm’s drift towards the shore. But in the Force 7-8 south westerly wind, the anchors were dragging and, although the boat was drifting at a slower rate, it was getting closer to the rocks of Cape Wrath.

When the lifeboat arrived on scene at 10.24pm the weather had deteriorated and the crew faced 10 metre swells and heavy rain and the fishing boat was now only a mile from shore.

Coxswain MacAskill circled the boat to assess the situation. His greatest concern was the size of the vessel; laden as she was, he knew it would be a challenge to be able to hold her in position or tow her away from the shore. If the tow failed, the fishing boat crew would be unlikely to re-set the anchors before the boat would be wrecked on the rocky shoreline.

He requested support from the rescue helicopter from Stornoway so that, should the tow fail, the helicopter could winch the Norholm’s crew to safety. With the helicopter on its way, Coxswain MacAskill attempted to pass a tow line to the stricken boat.

But the weather had worsened yet again, and the crews faced hail storms, thunder and lightning. The pitching of both vessels in the heavy seas made passing the tow line very difficult and the strong winds whipped the line away when it was thrown between the two.

Using his experience and knowledge, Coxswain MacAskill decided to try an alternative – he asked the boat’s crew to float a line from the stern of the Norholm where the lifeboat crew could pick it up.

Coxswain MacAskill then manoeuvred the lifeboat to take up the weight of the fishing boat and the skipper of the Norholm lifted the anchors. Cautiously, the lifeboat began to drag the fish carrying vessel slowly away from the shore.

The size of the swell was such that, despite being in the upper steering position on the lifeboat, Coxswain MacAskill regularly lost sight of the boat behind the waves.

Just after midnight, the lifeboat and the Norholm were two nautical miles clear of Cape Wrath and the rescue helicopter returned to shore. At 1.45am Thurso lifeboat was asked to launch to relieve the Lochinver volunteers.

Meanwhile, Lochinver lifeboat had rounded Cape Wrath and had gained some shelter from the land. But suddenly the tow line parted with a bang and the tired crew had to work hard to re-establish it.

Just as the Thurso lifeboat could be seen approaching the tow line parted again and Coxswain MacAskill decided to wait for its arrival before resetting the tow from the Thurso lifeboat.

Once this was done, Lochinver lifeboat then headed back into the rougher water on its way back to the lifeboat station, arriving at 7.15am on 8 December after nearly 12 hours at sea.

Notes to editors

• Summary of awards:
o RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry – Coxswain David MacAskill
o Letter of Thanks from the Chairman of the Institution – Mechanic Stuart Gudgeon
o Letter of Thanks from the Chairman of the Institution – Navigator Robert Kinnaird
o Letter of Thanks from the Chairman of the Institution – Crew Member James MacAskill 
o Letter of Thanks from the Chairman of the Institution – Crew Member John Templeton  
o Letter of Thanks from the Chairman of the Institution – Crew Member Joseph Mackay  
o Letter of Thanks from the Chairman of the Institution – Crew Member Lachlan MacAskill 
• This link will take you to a short video of the rescue, filmed by RNLI Thurso… http://rnli.org/Pages/Video-Details.aspx?VideoItemID=lUmrKEEk
• Crewman James MacAskill is no relation to the coxswain.

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