Newhaven Lifeboat was tasked at 12.40am on Monday 18 September by HM Coastguard following a worried 999 call from a yacht with two people on board south of Cuckmere. The yacht, caught in the thunderstorm, had suffered ripped sails and engine failure.
Newhaven’s Severn class lifeboat David and Elizabeth Acland, her Coxswain and volunteer crew of six launched into strong force 7 to 8 conditions. South westerly wind with thunderstorm, long flashes of lighting and torrential downpours of rain.
Lewis Arnold, Coxswain, said: ‘The lifeboat made best safe speed to the reported location, due to the poor visibility, sea state and weather conditions this was not an easy passage.’
The lifeboat navigated a search, working northwards from a position 1.5NM’s south of Cuckmere.
‘Searchlights were on, but flashback against the rain in the darkness made them of little use.’
Crew were also monitoring the radar, which located a small target, approximately 0.5NM off the coastline. The lifeboat proceeded to the position.
‘A small break in the thunderstorm gave the lights a chance to shine. And there was the yacht, being thrown around in all directions with a tiny dragging anchor line attempting to slow the drift towards the rocky cliffs.’
The Severn approached the casualty vessel, Coxswain holding the lifeboat steady, enabling crew to call across and discuss the situation with the sailors in distress. Both boats were pitching and rolling heavily.
After an initial assessment of the situation, the lifeboat was manoeuvred close enough to pass two survivors life-jackets across to the sailors. Given the conditions, the favoured plan to save the sailors was first to attempt to tow the vessel to safer water.
‘They felt happy and safe enough to attach a tow line and recover the anchor without the assistance of a lifeboat crew member on board.’
The storm, meanwhile, gathered pace along with further torrential downpours. The volunteer crew worked tirelessly to get the deck safe and ready for a tow to be passed across to the yacht.
‘The severe weather conditions and darkness made it impossible for crew on deck to see where we were or how close to shore we were.’
Once the deck crew confirmed they were ready, from the Upper Steering Position, Lewis Arnold manoeuvred the lifeboat as close to the yacht as possible.
‘Just as crew readied to pass the tow line, a squall came through. To maintain safety of the lifeboat, the attempt was aborted.’
Two further attempts were made; however, these were also aborted due to depth and unpredictable swing and drift of the yacht toward the shore.
‘We were running out of time to affect this plan because of the drift.’
The Lifeboat was backed down sea, with the yacht broadside to the weather. Two throw lines were deployed, one passing over the casualty vessel and a tow line attached and passed over.
‘Both vessels were now in 10 metres of water. Crew were extremely wet and fatigued but showed real determination to save these people.’
The tow line was successfully secured. The lifeboat headed south to clearer and deeper water. Where the tow line was lengthened to a reasonable safe length, all of this done under continued heavy down pour of rain.
‘Despite the slowing and uncomfortable effect of the tide, heading cross and down sea offered the safest course for the casualty vessel under the conditions.’
This course took the lifeboat eastwards, heading around Beachy Head and into some relief from the strong west-southwest gale pushing through. The wind was beginning to veer to the south however, soon giving no shelter in Eastbourne Bay.
‘As we rounded Beachy Head lighthouse south of the overfalls, we requested the launch of our flank station Eastbourne RNLI to take over the tow from us.’
Newhaven Lifeboat continued the tow towards the Pier, meeting Eastbourne Lifeboat a quarter mile offshore at Holywell. Newhaven prepared for Eastbourne to set a new tow line. Once the new tow line was established and Newhaven’s recovered, Newhaven RNLI stood down and returned to station. Eastbourne RNLI completed the tow, delivering the yacht safely into Sovereign Harbour.
Newhaven Lifeboat pagers were back on at 5.17am.
‘This was an extremely challenging shout. The good outcome comes with thanks to the grit and determination of our volunteer crew.’
Notes for the Editor
NM – nautical miles
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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.