10 years since RNLI Torbay lifeboat battled storm force winds for the Ice Prince
Around 8.30pm on the evening of 13 January, 2008, a call came in to the RNLI Torbay boathouse from Brixham Coastguard: the 132m cargo ship Ice Prince (bound for Egypt from Sweden) was in difficulty 31 miles out in the English Channel. She had over 5,200 tons of timber aboard.
The RNLI Torbay volunteer crew were paged, and all available (around 20) arrived promptly at the boathouse. Severe gales had been screaming all day; they had eased slightly but were still extreme south south-easterly, storm force 9-10. Coxswain Mark Criddle would gladly have taken any of the volunteer crew on the shout, but the six who went with him were John Ashford, Nigel Coulton, Darryll Farley, Roger Good, Alex Rowe and Mechanic Matt Tyler.
The call had not come in as a Mayday; the Greek-registered Ice Prince had reported that her cargo had shifted and she was listing, and the tasking for the RNLI Torbay Severn Class all-weather lifeboat crew aboard the Alec & Christina Dykes was initially to attend and stand by on scene, assisted by Salcombe's (at that time) Tyne Class lifeboat and Coastguard Rescue helicopter India Juliet. However, as the RNLI volunteer crews made their way towards the Ice Prince, the situation became increasingly serious.
Mark Criddle recalls: 'There are very few occasions like that; initially we did not have to run the lifeboat too hard as the Ice Prince had reported listing and the rescue services were tasked to stand by. However, as we made headway the incident got progressively worse, first with reports of an injured crewman, then loss of power followed by loss of lighting on board the freighter as her generators flooded. We increased our speed until we were flat out. We were all confined below deck due to the conditions, and our speed and the sea state made a pretty uncomfortable passage. Our all-weather Severn Class lifeboat is supremely capable in very rough seas, but myself and the crew were very aware of the risk of injury in those extreme conditions.'
It took around two hours for the Torbay lifeboat to cover the 31 miles. Arriving on scene, they were immediately joined by the Salcombe lifeboat and the Coastguard Rescue helicopter. On assessment, the situation was indeed dire; the Ice Prince was by now beam-on to the winds and listing severely. Her port side rails were underwater with seawater pouring in through ventilation hatches and openings on that side, risking sudden capsize and threatening the lives of all 20 on board, including the Greek captain and his crew.
In an operation lasting almost two hours, and with 50 approaches manoeuvring in close proximity to the massive rolling cargo vessel in atrocious conditions, the RNLI Torbay volunteer crew were eventually able to take 8 crew members from the Ice Prince, one of whom was thrown into the sea when the lifeboat was struck and damaged by the massive vessel, but was then plucked to safety. Coastguard Rescue helicopter India Juliet airlifted another 12 crew from the stricken cargo vessel, with all of this being done in total darkness and during continuing storm force winds.
The 12 aboard the helicopter were flown to Dorset for hospital treatment, with the 8 aboard the RNLI Torbay lifeboat receiving hospital treatment here in Devon. Apart from a broken leg (for the crewman who fell in the cargo ship's wheelhouse) and shock, cuts and bruises, all recovered. In the hours after the rescue (on January 15) the Ice Prince capsized and sank beneath the waves some 26 miles south south east of Portland Bill.
Following the rescue, the RNLI Torbay crew involved that night were all recognised for their bravery, receiving the RNLI Thanks of the Institution Vellum award, and later attending the GMTV Pride of Britain awards in London and winning the Emergency Services category. The Salcombe lifeboat crew all received the RNLI Chief Executive's Letter of Thanks. Coxswain Mark Criddle was awarded the RNLI Silver Medal for Gallantry, and was further recognised by both the Shipwrecked Mariners Society and the International Maritime Organization for his leadership in bringing all 7 lifeboat crew members and 8 crew from the Ice Prince home safely.
Ten years on from that unforgettable night, Nigel Coulton, Matt Tyler and Alex Rowe have stepped down from the crew but Cox Mark Criddle and volunteer lifeboat crew John Ashford, Roger Good and Daryll Farley remain and – along with Torbay’s full team of 26 volunteer crew – continue to be ready at a moment’s notice to help save lives at sea.
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 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.