50 years since the Nafsiporos - Remembering a remarkable 17-medal rescue
On this day fifty years ago, a rescue took place that involved three lifeboats, took over 24 hours, and resulted in seventeen bravery medals.
The Nafsiporos was a 1,287-ton Greek freighter with 19 crew members on board. Her engine had failed and she was drifting dangerously towards the Anglesey coast, in 100mph hurricane winds.
The Douglas RNLI lifeboat R A Colby Cubbin No 1 under Coxswain Robert Lee launched at 8:30 on the morning of December 2 1966 to chase the Nafsiporos as the storm drove her across the sea. Although a Shackleton aircraft circling above the ship was able to give her position, the Douglas boat never laid eyes on the vessel, as the hurricane reduced visibility to less than 500 yards.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Commander Harold Harvey, RNLI Inspector for Lifeboats for the North-West, was in Holyhead on the wild morning of December 2. The extreme weather had brought down phone lines and made it impossible to hear the sound of maroons usually used to summon crew. Commander Harvey volunteered his services as an extra hand and the Holyhead lifeboat St Cybi was eventually able to launch at 10:30am.
After three hours of searching, the Holyhead crew eventually reached the stricken freighter, which was in a perilous state, just eight miles from the Anglesey coast and still moving at three-and-a-half knots, completely at the mercy of the storm. The waves were 35ft high and the Nafsiporos was rolling alarmingly and being lifted high in the sea, her huge propellers churning in the air above the heads of the lifeboat crew.
Holyhead crewman Graham Drinkwater was just 19-years-old at the time and on his very first shout. Having no experience of previous rescues, he found it exhilarating: “I always remember the first moment we launched because that was my first time down the slipway. Then the actual trip out from the lifeboat station to the area of the casualty was fantastic. Talk about a rollercoaster. I mean, you ain’t seen nothing till you’ve been out on that.”
Graham, who went on to become Lifeboat Operations Manager at Holyhead, added: “I remember the first moment I saw the ship. It was so massive compared to our boat. I got a bit apprehensive at that moment. We missed the first time, went round again, had a massive collision with the side of the Nafsiporos and then we were alongside.”
It was now gone 4pm and the sun had set. One of the freighter’s lifeboats had come loose and was swinging on a single davit, making it incredibly difficult for her rescuers to get anywhere near her. The Greek crewmen on board had to climb down a ladder on the side of their boat, dodging the dangerously swinging pendulum of their own lifeboat, and then leap to the RNLI boat, which was also being lifted and dropped by the sea.
Holyhead Second Coxswain William Jones later remembered: “The rise and fall between the ship and lifeboat was enormous, one moment we were looking up at her and the next we were in line with her deck, a matter of around 20 feet or more.”
Five crewmen made it to safety but then the Nafsiporos’ lifeboat fell crashing onto the Holyhead boat, damaging it and forcing the crew to withdraw.
The Moelfre lifeboat Watkin Williams had already been out since 7 that morning, assisting two other vessels struggling in the storm. The crew had barely got back to the station when they were asked to launch again to go to the aid of the Nafisiporos.
Moelfre Coxswain Dic Evans, later said: “That day, the sea was like a foreign country. With the leaping and the plunging of the lifeboat, the compass was swinging wildly, I could see nothing. The sea was being blown into clouds of spray and visibility was nil.”
He added: “The waves were like nothing I’d ever been told about. We climbed perpendicularly and we went down the same way. I was afraid every wave was going to send us somersaulting on our back. There would have been no hope for any of us then, we would have disappeared forever.”
Coxswain Evans on the Moelfre boat had witnessed the near disaster to the Holyhead lifeboat. He then manoeuvred his 42-foot lifeboat alongside the Nafsiporos and his crew tried to pull the Greek sailors onboard.
Years later, survivor John Patsoulas would remember the Moelfre lifeboat crew standing in formation on the lifeboat’s decks, linking their arms shoulder to shoulder waiting to receive the sailors. He and other men rescued by the Moelfre boat clearly recalled lifeboatman David Evans, Coxswain Evans’ son, as a ‘bear of a man …big, strong and powerful’ who grabbed the sailors and tossed them into the safety of the lifeboat ‘like sacks of corn’.
Coxswain Evans kept his boat steady enough for his crew to pull ten of the Nafsiporos crew onto the lifeboat’s deck. On the tenth attempt, the Watkin Williams was swept onto the deck of the Nafsiporos, but was washed off moments later. The Moelfre boat was badly damaged and without electrics and lighting, but set course for Holyhead to land the ten survivors. Four Greek crewmen, including the captain were still on board the Nafsiporos, having refused to abandon ship.
By the time they arrived ashore, Coxswain Evans, then aged 61, had been at an open wheel exposed to the hurricane conditions for nearly 13 hours without a break. The Holyhead crew paused only to have a cup of tea then launched again to stand by the Nafsiporos through the night until a Dutch tug towed her, and her remaining crew, back to Liverpool the following morning.
The determination and gallantry of both crews ensured the rescue was a huge success. Despite the dangerous conditions and heart-stopping near-misses, there were no fatalities and no casualties.
The RNLI awarded medals to every member of the Holyhead and Moelfre crews for their bravery. Coxswain Dic Evans received his second RNLI Gold Medal and RNLI Inspector Harold Harvey, was awarded his first. During the rescue, he had taken on the position of Acting Coxswain of the Holyhead boat. Silver Medals were given to Motor Mechanic Evan Owens, Coxswain Thomas Alcock and Motor Mechanic Eric Jones, and Bronze Medals were awarded to the remaining members of both crews.
Harold Harvey said afterwards: “We were all exhausted after twenty-two hours at sea, and during the night following the rescue many thoughts and silent prayers occupied our minds. Once ashore, the rum came out. We were all proud and grateful men, speaking little and bound by the experience of such extreme lifeboat drama and action.”
Notes to editors:
The attached pictures show:
- Moelfre RNLI Coxswain Dic Evans and the rescued Greek sailors (copyright Liverpool Daily Post and Echo)
- The Nafsiporos in the hurricane conditions before the Holyhead RNLI lifeboat approached (credit RNLI)
- Holyhead and Moelfre RNLI lifeboat crews in London to receive their Gallantry Medals (credit RNLI)
- Nafsiporos painting by Michael Turner
For more information contact Chris Cousens, RNLI Press Officer for Wales and West, on email@example.com/ 01745 585162 / 07748 265496. Alternatively, contact Jo Quinn in the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336194 / firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and, in a normal year, more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.