Tragedy in the Pentland Firth: Marking the Longhope Lifeboat Disaster
At 9.35pm on March 17th 1969 the Principle Keeper at the Pentland Skerries Lighthouse reported seeing the Longhope Lifeboat, T.G.B.’s stern light heading east on a mission to aid those on board the Liberian ship Irene. This was the last contact with the RNLI’s Watson Class lifeboat from Longhope.
Having failed to respond to radio messages, a search was launched for T.G.B. and her volunteer crew. Tragically, she was found, upturned, at 1.40pm the following day by Thurso’s lifeboat, all eight crew had been lost.
The loss shook the RNLI but particularly the community of Brims, Longhope who, in one night, had lost a third of their population. This year, will see the 50th anniversary of the disaster marked by a day of commemoration, organised by RNLI Longhope and the Longhope Lifeboat Museum Trust.
The crew lost on March 17th 1969 were: Coxswain Daniel Kirkpatrick, 2nd Coxswain James Johnston, Bowman Ray Kirkpatrick, Mechanic Robert Johnston, Assistant Mechanic James Swanson, Crew Jack Kirkpatrick, Crew Robert Johnston and Crew Eric McFadyen.
Leading the organisation of the commemoration is Kevin Kirkpatrick, Coxswain of the current Longhope Lifeboat, who lost his father, uncle and grandfather on the night of the Tragedy. Kevin’s wife also lost her father, uncle and grandfather meaning that Karen and Kevin’s children, Jack and Stella, who also serve on the RNLI crew, lost six relatives.
As T.G.B.’s crew was drawn from such a small community, hardly anyone was left untouched by the tragedy. Despite this, there were volunteers to form a new crew almost immediately. Ian McFadyen, brother of lost crewman Eric, became the mechanic on the lifeboat which replaced T.G.B. and eventually became Coxswain from 1994 to 2002.
Many of the relatives of those lost still live locally. Patty, the son of Robert (‘Sodger Bob’) Johnston, still lives in Brims as do Ivy Johnston and Yvonne Johnston, widows of Robert and James. Betty Kirkpatrick, widow of Ray, lives nearby at Crockness. Gary Kirkpatrick, another son of Dan, still lives in Brims and works as a fisherman.
Speaking about the 50th anniversary of the disaster, Coxswain Kevin Kirkpatrick said: “This will be an emotional day for us all. The tragic loss of our eight lifeboat men and the ultimate sacrifice they made will never be forgotten here but it is due to the strength and resilience of our local community that our lifeboat station continues and still operates from Longhope today.”
Longhope Lifeboat Press Officer Mary Harris said: “We are so grateful for all those who have helped us get ready for this special day. We are especially thankful for the young people descended from the crew who will be taking part. We know it will be a momentous day and we are so proud of them all.”
The commemoration will see a day of events take place in Brims, South Walls and the surrounding waters. A flotilla of boats including RNLI lifeboats from Thurso, Stromness, Wick, and the current Longhope lifeboat plus the Coastguard tug MV Levoli Black, a harbour tug, pilot boat and vintage lifeboat from Ireland will congregate in Aith Hope to dip their flags as a mark of respect. The Coastguard will also be represented by one of their rescue helicopters.
A service will also take place at the memorial (unveiled in 1970 by HRH The Queen Mother) in Osmundwall Cemetery and guests will congregate at both the Longhope Lifeboat Museum and community hall to take part in ceremonies to remember those lost.
Flags at lifeboat stations around Scotland, the RNLI’s Divisional Base in Perth and at the RNLI’s HQ in Poole will be lowered to half mast and the Longhope community will not be far from the thoughts of the thousands of staff and volunteers involved with the RNLI today. T.G.B. currently sits in the Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine. The museum’s staff will mark the anniversary of the tragedy by holding a minute’s silence and laying a wreath by the boat’s side.
Speaking about the anniversary and the current crew, Jacob Davies, Lifesaving Manager for the RNLI in Scotland, said:
“This is an incredibly poignant time for our Longhope lifeboat crew, their families, the Hoy community and, of course, the RNLI as a whole. In March we will mark 50 years since the loss of the crew of T.G.B. and the continuing effect that their loss has had on their families and the community. We thank our existing crew and their families for the efforts they are making to ensure the anniversary commemorations are so fitting.
“As an organisation we are reminded of the terrible sacrifice that the crew made on the night of March 17th 1969 and remember the bravery that it takes to go to the aid of those in danger around our coast. We are also grateful to our current crew for their continued support of the RNLI on Hoy.”
Notes to Editors:
This press release will be updated, via the RNLI News Centre, with video content (including heritage pieces and interview with past and current crew) and images. Additional content will also be available on the day of the commemoration both via the News Centre and the RNLI’s Twitter account @RNLI and Instagram stories.
For media enquiries, including arranging interviews, please contact Gemma McDonald, RNLI Regional Media Manager for Scotland, firstname.lastname@example.org or 07826 900 639
For enquiries about the Scottish Maritime Museum please contact Abigail McIntyre email@example.com
Timeline of Longhope Lifeboat Disaster:
March 17 1969
9.15pm – Irene grounds – reached by Coastguard teams
9.28pm – Last radio signal from T.G.B.
9.30pm – T.G.B. seen by Principal Keeper of Pentland Skerries Lighthouse, north of lighthouse.
9.35pm – Keeper sees T.G.B.’s stern light about a mile away to the east
10.00pm – T.G.B fails to respond to a radio message
1.30 am – All Irene’s crew safely brought ashore
March 18 1969
1.40pm – Thurso lifeboat crew locate upturned hull of T.G.B 4 miles SW of Tor Ness. Towed to Scrabster Harbour by Thurso LB
May 22 1970
Hilton Briggs becomes operational on Hoy with new crew
Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren descended from the T.G.B. lifeboat crew will be attending the commemoration. Some of them will honour their ancesters by playing the song ‘The Heroes of Longhope’ at the commemoration.
Only seven bodies were recovered from the hull of T.G.B. The body of James Swanson was never found.
The funeral service for the lost crew was held on 22 March 1969 at Walls Old Parish Church, Hoy.
An enquiry into the loss of T.G.B. found that all necessary precautions and procedures had been taken by RNLI and the Coastguard. The enquiry stated that T.G.B. had capsized after being overwhelmed by “very high seas and maelstrom conditions”.
The loss of T.G.B. led to the development of self-righting lifeboats including those of the Islay and Barra lifeboats which both capsized on the same shout in 1979. The Barra Island 52ft Barnett Class lifeboat R A Colby Cubbin No 3 capsized at 0346 on 18 November 1979, off the west coast of Scotland whilst answering a distress call from the Danish coaster Lone Dania. The Islay lifeboat, a Thames Class named Helmut Schroder of Dunlossit also capsized at 01.45 whilst on service to the same casualty.
Both lifeboats righted successfully without loss of life by their different righting methods. The Barra Island lifeboat was fitted with an air bag which automatically inflated in the event of a capsize whilst the Islay lifeboat was inherently self-righting by means of a watertight superstructure. It was the first time that either of these classes of lifeboat had capsized on service and the RNLI's inquiry found that "…there was no failure of the lifeboats or their equipment which contributed to the capsizes".
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.