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40 years since the Sheerness RNLI lifeboat rescued four from Radio Caroline

Lifeboats News Release

March 19 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the epic rescue of four crew members of the Radio Caroline pirate radio ship Mi Amigo in the Thames Estuary.

Artists impression of the Helen Turnbull heading out to rescue the crew of the Mi Amigo radio ship on March 19 1980

RNLI/Vic Booth

Heading into the storm

The volunteer crew of the Sheerness RNLI Waveney class lifeboat Helen Turnbull launched at 2.30pm on March 19 1980 in a severe north-easterly gale and mountainous seas to reports that the pirate radio ship Mi Amigo had lost its anchor and was drifting close to Long Sand Bank in the Thames estuary, approximately five nautical miles from Sheerness.

The four-man crew, including British DJ’s Stevie Gordon and Tom Anderson, had deployed their emergency anchor but the vessel had still managed to run aground on the Long Sands sandbank.

When the lifeboat finally reached the stricken ‘Radio Caroline’ vessel it was forced to stand off approximately one mile to wait for the tide to rise as the Force 9 gale pounded the stricken broadcaster. For two hours during this time the lifeboat crew tried to persuade the four men on the Mi Amigo that they needed to leave the vessel.

At approximately 9.30pm the casualty began to take on water and its crew agreed to abandon ship, leaving behind all their personal belongings and the station’s master tapes. Lifeboat Coxswain Charles Bowry made a first attempt to bring the lifeboat under the stern of the casualty which proved impossible.He then approached from the starboard side with his crew giving instruction as to their course and speed so that they could come alongside at the precise moment between the crests of two waves, a tricky manoeuvre which if mis-judged could have led to the lifeboat being smashed down onto the Mi Amigo’s deck.

The lifeboat crew repeatedly risked their lives in mountainous seas and had to manoeuvre 13 times alongside the casualty before all the crew plus ‘Wilson’ the ship’s canary were finally safely onboard the Helen Turnbull. Three hours later the ‘pirates’ were landed safely at Sheerness where they were interviewed by the Police.

Just after midnight on 20 March 1980 the Mi Amigo finally succumbed and sank with only the radio mast still visible. In July 1986 the mast collapsed and on September 13 that year Trinity House updated the wrecks status.

Lifeboat Coxswain Charles Henry Bowry was subsequently awarded an RNLI silver medal for his seamanship. The crew members each received commendations on vellum from the institution for their efforts.

The Helen Turnbull began service at Sheerness on 4 April 1974 and was finally replaced by the current all-weather lifeboat the George and Ivy Swanson in 1996.

During her time on station at Sheerness, ‘Waveney Class’ lifeboat ON1027 Helen Turnbull launched 649 times with 297 persons saved/rescued with Coxswain Charles ‘Charlie’ Bowry earning two RNLI bronze medals alongside his silver medal for the Radio Caroline rescue.

The current volunteer crew of the Sheerness RNLI lifeboat station are now looking forward to the new Shannon class lifeboat 13-38 Judith Copping Joyce that is now nearing completion and will replace their much loved Trent class all weather lifeboat George and Ivy Swanson later this year.

RNLI Media contacts:

Vic Booth RNLI Lifeboat Press Officer (Sheerness) 07926904453 / 01795 880544 / [email protected]

Paul Dunt, Regional Media Officer (South East), 0207 6207426, 07785 296252 [email protected]

  • For enquiries outside normal business hours, contact the RNLI duty press officer on 01202 336789

The Helen Turnbull in calmer seas taking part in an un-dated Sheerness Dockyard open day.

RNLI/Vic Booth

Waveney class lifeboat 'Helen Turnbull'

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 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.

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Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries

Members of the public may contact the RNLI on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland) or by email.