Courageous Islay lifeboat volunteers given RNLI awards after saving yachtsman
The Coxswain of Islay lifeboat in the Hebrides and his volunteer crew have been recognised for their part in saving a sailor’s life during a severe gale.
Coxswain David MacLellan (45) is to be awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry – one of the charity’s highest accolades – for his display of great skill and seamanship in an extremely arduous service
His four crew members will also be recognised for their part in the rescue, an operation which lasted 18 hours.
Mechanic David McArthur (41), Navigator Thomas Coope (30), Crew Member Duncan MacGillivray (31) and Crew Member Peter Thomson (37) will receive Framed Letters of Thanks from the RNLI Chairman.
Captain Martin Porter, of the Deep Energy pipe laying vessel, will also receive a Framed Letter of Thanks from the RNLI Chairman.
The RNLI has also decided to give official thanks to the owners of Deep Energy with a letter from the RNLI Chief Executive.
Letters of thanks will be sent from the charity’s Operations Director to the pilot and crew of Rescue Helicopter R100 and to Gavin Hyne, a crew member of Deep Energy. He is also a volunteer mechanic at RNLI Buckie lifeboat station.
The Islay lifeboat crew had to contend with extremely challenging weather that included winds of nearly 60 knots, driving sleet and treacherous sea conditions as they helped a yacht that had struck rocks at Skerryvore Reef and then started drifting.
The volunteer crew tried several times to make the Russian yachtsman tie the tow rope to his boat but attempts floundered in the face of appalling weather and the yachtsman’s difficulty in understanding what was required.
Eventually the yachtsman left the drifting yacht and climbed aboard Deep Energy from where he was airlifted to safety. The Islay lifeboat Helmut Schroder of Dunlossit II had left station at 12.45am on 16 February 2016 and returned at 6.20pm.
Coxswain MacLellan is judged to have displayed ‘exemplary situational awareness’ throughout the long incident and his crew all acted courageously with determination and selflessness.
The RNLI says that the official thanks for the emergency services and the pipe-laying vessel highlight the support given during very challenging conditions. Captain Martin Porter did a ‘remarkable job’ in positioning his 195metre long vessel alongside the 15metre yacht while Gavin Hyne used his skill and training as an RNLI volunteer to assist with the transfer of the yachtsman from the ship’s deck to a Coastguard helicopter.
Coxswain MacLellan said: ‘Everything was being thrown at us that night and day. The crew were fighting fatigue, the conditions and the fact that the yachtsman did not seem to understand what to do. The crew were absolutely fit and dealt with such a demanding job on the deck.
‘You don’t think of medals when you are bouncing up and down in the waves but it is good to have recognition for the station. We are not the busiest station but when something really nasty comes along then the lifeboat is there to make a difference.’
George Rawlinson, RNLI Operations Director, said: ‘‘This was an extremely arduous service for the coxswain and crew of the Islay all-weather lifeboat. It involved considerable risk and the coxswain displayed great skill and seamanship to ensure its successful conclusion.
‘His determination, leadership and judgement ensured his crew remained safe while giving the best possible chance of survival for the sole occupant of the yacht.
‘The Master of the PLSV Deep Energy was instrumental in finally effecting the safe evacuation of the sailor from his stricken vessel.’
Captain Porter said, ‘The Islay lifeboat had been trying to assist the yacht for much of the night; a nigh on impossible task in the prevailing conditions. The information which they provided was extremely useful in locating and subsequently manoeuvring to the yacht and to have both RNLI lifeboats from Islay and Barra standing by whilst we did first the evacuation from the yacht and subsequently the hi-line to the helicopter gave a comfort factor to the operation knowing that help was available if things started to go wrong.
Captain Porter, who is also an RNLI Shoreline Member, said, ‘In this case with a successful outcome it was a pleasure to lend assistance; we saw just a small example of how the lifeboat crews battle for our benefit and wish them all "Godspeed and safe return" when they go out on a shout again in the future.’
Detailed rescue report
At 12.15am on Tuesday 16 February 2016 Belfast Coastguard received a distress call from a yacht with one person aboard, informing them the boat had run aground on Skerryvore Reef, 46 miles north west of Islay.
Shortly afterwards, at 12.45am, the volunteers at Islay Lifeboat Station launched their all-weather lifeboat Helmut Schroder of Dunlossit II under the command of Coxswain David MacLellan with four crew members aboard, David McArthur (mechanic), Thomas Coope (navigator), Duncan Macgillivray and Peter Thomson (crew).
Once clear of the shelter afforded by the island of Islay, the lifeboat experienced the full force of the conditions. A severe gale was blowing from the south with a 4-6 metre sea and a swell of eight metres off the port quarter.
Darkness, driving rain and sleet showers made visibility very poor and this was further complicated by the failure of the radar. This meant the crew had to manually plot contacts from the AIS system to a paper chart to determine any risk of collision. Seasickness was also affecting two of the crew but fortunately they were able to work through this effectively.
The lifeboat passed Dubh Artach lighthouse at 1.55am, still some 20 miles south east of the casualty, and heard that Coastguard Rescue Helicopter R100, a Sikorsky S92 from Prestwick, was now on scene and attempting to make contact with the yacht.
As Coxswain MacLellan approached the Skerryvore Reef, he was given a new position for the yacht, five miles north of the reef. This was only three miles south of the Outer Hurricane Rock, a shoal area which given the swell conditions would be treacherous to both the casualty vessel and the lifeboat.
Once on scene the helicopter pilot asked if the Islay lifeboat would take over the rescue as they were running low on fuel. This was agreed and the helicopter left. The helicopter had not attempted to winch the yachtsman due to the difficult conditions.
Taking charge, Coxswain MacLellan assessed it was too dangerous in the prevailing conditions to attempt to manoeuvre alongside the yacht to take the casualty off. Towing the yacht clear of the next set of reefs was the priority. The yacht had a damaged hull and she was heaving unpredictably in a large swell, with the wind peaking at 57 knots.
The lone yachtsman could not speak English and a Russian language translator assisted Stornoway Coastguard with communications. Coxswain MacLellan brought the lifeboat close to the yacht but conditions became more hazardous with the lifeboat pitching and rolling violently and several approaches were abandoned.
The yachtsman took a tow rope from the lifeboat and eventually secured it to the stern of his yacht, which was not ideal, for a tow with both boats perilously close to shallower water near Tiree. Coxswain MacLellan judged that towing the yacht slowly stern first in a westerly direction, whilst risky and far from ideal, was justified in order to clear the Outer Hurricane Rock overfalls which were now only 150 yards away.
The tow came adrift but by now the yacht had cleared the overfalls. The yachtsman attached another tow rope from the lifeboat to the yacht’s bow but after a few minutes that tow came adrift.
After discussions with the coastguard it was agreed that as the vessel was now drifting into open water, the lifeboat would standby the yacht until daylight and the coastguard would ask for help from any passing merchant ship to provide shelter from severe gale force winds. Such a lee would assist a revised plan of action to rescue the yachtsman from his vessel if he decided to abandon it.
The pipe laying 194.5 metre long vessel Deep Energy arrived at 11.30am and as it manoeuvred alongside the yacht at midday, the coastguard helicopter R100 arrived along with the RNLI Barra Island lifeboat.
It was too dangerous for the helicopter to attempt to winch the yachtsman from his boat. The yachtsman managed to get onto Deep Energy’s pilot ladder and board the ship where he was winched off by the helicopter.
At 1pm Islay lifeboat was stood down and arrived back at its berth at Port Askaig at 6.20pm, some 18 hours after her initial tasking. The Barra Island lifeboat was asked by Stornoway Coastguard to secure the yacht and take her in tow. However, the coxswain decided there was too much risk associated with such a manoeuvre and the yacht was left to drift.
Summary of awards:
o RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry – Coxswain David MacLellan
o Framed letter of thanks from the Chairman – Mechanic David McArthur
o Framed letter of thanks from the Chairman – Navigator Thomas Coope
o Framed letter of thanks from the Chairman – Crew Duncan MacGillivray
o Framed letter of thanks from the Chairman – Crew Peter Thomson
o Framed letter of thanks from the Chairman - Captain Martin Porter, Master of Deep Energy
o Letter of thanks from the Chief Executive – Owners of Deep Energy
o Letter of thanks from the Operations Director – Pilot and Crew of Coastguard helicopter R100
o Letter of thanks from the Operations Director - Gavin Hyne, crew on Deep Energy
Notes to Editor:
o Islay Coxswain David MacLellan joined the RNLI in April 1990. He was awarded the Thanks of the Institution inscribed on Vellum in 2008 in recognition of his leadership and seamanship when the lifeboat saved the fishing vessel Niamh Aine and her crew of seven. That award is one below a Bronze Medal.
o Islay lifeboat station, opened in 1934 at Port Askaig, has had three previous bronze medals and one silver medal awarded by the RNLI. A new lifeboat station building was opened at Port Askaig in 2014.
o This is the eighth bronze medal awarded in Scotland since 2000. Earlier this year the RNLI announced that Lochinver coxswain David MacAskill would receive the bronze medal for a rescue conducted in December 2014.
Photographs: Photographs taken by Clive Booth.
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