Anniversary of the saving of 12 trawler men by Aith RNLI volunteers

Lifeboats News Release

The RNLI’s most northerly lifeboat station is remembering a silver medal rescue 50 years ago during which 12 crew were saved from a trawler.

Aith mechanic John Robertson and coxswain Hylton Henry with the silver medal


Aith mechanic John Robertson and coxswain Hylton Henry with the silver medal

On 19 February, 1967, Aith’s Barnet class lifeboat, the John and Francis MacFarlane launched to an Aberdeen trawler that had grounded on the island of Papa Stour, off Shetland.

The trawler was jammed among rocks at the foot of sheer cliffs 200 foot high and the crew were unable to use their life rafts.

Aith coxswain John Robert Nicolson took the lifeboat, in rough weather, through a very narrow passage only a few yards wide to reach the trawler after 5am.

The RNLI’s official report of the rescue says, ‘With good teamwork between engineers and deck crew, the coxswain finally succeeded in reaching the casualty which was then low in the water with decks awash and being pounded heavily with surf crashing mast high.

‘The survivors were in poor shape, wet and exhausted, which together with the movement of the boats and the weather made the rescue a most hazardous task.

‘However, by a superhuman effort by all the lifeboat crew all 12 men of the trawler crew were hauled aboard the lifeboat without any injuries. A remarkable achievement considering the heaving and rolling that was taking place.

‘Once all hands were accounted for, Coxswain Nicolson had to undertake the difficult task of getting the lifeboat back out of the very enclosed area surrounded by high cliffs and with jagged rocks and skerries in various places.’

The coxswain, who died in 2004, was awarded the silver medal. He also received the Maud Smith Award for the bravest rescue by a lifeboat during 1967, and the P and O award for bravery.

The rest of the crew received RNLI Thanks of the Institution inscribed on vellum. They were Frank Johnston, Kenny Henry, Jimmy Manson, Wilbert Clark, Jim Tait, Andy Smith and Bill Anderson.

Kenny is the father of current Aith coxswain Hylton Henry. Hylton said, ‘It is phenomenal to think what that crew did in that lifeboat in such conditions.’

The trawler was stuck in the passage between Lyra Skerry and Papa Stour and the lifeboat mechanic Frank Johnston recalled on the 40th anniversary of the rescue: ‘If you’d stopped to analyse tides and currents and charts you’d never have got in there. We came back up the voe with a great sense of well-being.

‘We’d saved the men. I couldn’t believe that we’d done it, that I’d been involved.’

Frank is the grandfather of current Aith mechanic John Robertson’s wife Kayla. John Robert Nicolson’s nephew, David Nicolson, is on the current crew.

The lifeboat had a top speed of about nine knots and the weather was so bad that one crewman, Kenny Henry, never heard the maroons firing to alert the crew to the emergency. He was alerted by a phone call. For another crewman, Bill Anderson, it was his first time on a lifeboat. The crew was a man short and he was asked to help out.

The Aith crew also recalled that they were struck by the noise of the trawler, Juniper, which sounded like a tin can grinding as it moved on the rocks.

The conditions were so violent that one wave lifted the lifeboat right over the Juniper.

When the lifeboat returned to Aith pier, it was not possible to bring it alongside due to the pier’s poor condition, and the trawler’s crew had to be rowed across.

The fishermen enjoyed mock turtle soup on the lifeboat, and then had tea and sandwiches with crewman Wilbert Clark’s parents before going to the seamen’s mission in Lerwick.

RNLI media contacts:

Richard Smith, RNLI Public Relations Manager for Scotland on 01738 642956, 07786 668903 or

Or Henry Weaver, RNLI Press Officer for Scotland, 01738 642946, 07771 943026,

Or contact RNLI Public Relations on 01202 336789.

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.

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