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Greek sailor’s moving thanks to lifeboat crew 50 years after epic rescue

Lifeboats News Release

A survivor from one of the most remarkable rescues in the RNLI’s 192-year history will today (Friday 2 December) give a moving thanks to his Welsh rescuers – 50 years to the day after his life was saved.

A painting of the Nafsiporos by artist K Stone

RNLI

A painting of the Nafsiporos by artist K Stone

On December 2 1966 lifeboat crew volunteers from north Wales carried out the rescue of the Greek cargo ship Nafsiporos off the Anglesey coast. It remains one of the most decorated rescues in the RNLI’s history – with all 17 crew on board the Holyhead and Moelfre lifeboats awarded rare medals for gallantry.

Crews from the neighbouring Anglesey lifeboat stations risked their lives battling waves as big as houses and 100mph winds to pluck Greek sailors to safety from the wildly listing 1287-ton Nafsiporos, which was drifting dangerously towards rocks north of Anglesey. Greek survivors told of losing all hope in the mountainous December seas before hearing a message from the Holyhead lifeboat crew: ‘It’s Christmas time and you will see your ladies and babies for Christmas.’

A total of 15 Greek sailors were rescued from the Nafsiporos by the volunteer lifeboat crews and despite the hurricane conditions, nobody lost their lives in a rescue mission lasting 24 hours.

Today five of the surviving Holyhead lifeboat crew members from the rescue will watch a moving message of thanks from the Nafsiporos’ Second Officer Anestis Rokopoulos, now 73, in a special 50th anniversary film. The film, one of a series of shorts made by the RNLI to mark the occasion, will be shown as part of an event in Holyhead. Graham Drinkwater, Eric Jones, Jackie Hughes, Will Jones and Brian Stewart – five of the crew who braved the horrendous conditions back in 1966 – will be guests of honour.

In the film, Anestis says: ‘My only message is thank you. I am alive only because of these people. I make a family and I make grandchildren only because of these people.’

Remembering the conditions at sea 50 years ago, he added: ‘We had no control and no steering. The rocks looked like knives. Then from the depths of the sea came these boats and we said ‘they have come for us’.’

Graham Drinkwater, Holyhead RNLI’s current Lifeboat Operations Manager, was only 19 at the time of the Nafsiporos rescue. It was his first ever lifeboat shout and he earned a Bronze Medal for Gallantry.

He said: ‘It is fantastic to hear from Anestis today and his message of thanks means a great deal to us. To hear that the Greek sailors went on to live long and happy lives makes us all extremely proud.’

He added: ‘As a first shout as a teenager it certainly isn’t one I’ll ever forget. But lifeboat volunteers don’t go out to be gallant or to save the world, it’s just part of your life – you just do it.’

Some of the details from the rescue read like a Hollywood movie script. As the Holyhead lifeboat St Cybi reached the Nafsiporos and tried to approach, the Greek vessel’s own lifeboat had broken loose and was swinging like a pendulum above the Holyhead crew.

The Greek crewmen had to climb down a ladder on the side of their boat, dodging the dangerously swinging lifeboat, and then leap to the RNLI boat, which was also being lifted and dropped more than 20ft by the huge seas. Five Greek sailors made it to safety before the swinging lifeboat fell, crashing onto the Holyhead lifeboat. Miraculously nobody was hurt.

Now it was the turn of Moelfe lifeboat Watkin Williams under the command of Coxswain Dic Evans.

Recalling the rescue later, the legendary seaman said the waves were like nothing he had ever seen and he feared each one would send the small lifeboat somersaulting onto its back.

‘There would have been no hope for any of us then, we would have disappeared forever,’ he said.

Despite this he manoeuvred alongside the Nafsiporos and kept steady enough for his crew to pull 10 of the Nafsiporos’ sailors to safety. It was then swept onto the deck of the Nafsiporos, but was washed off moments later. Now badly damaged and without electrics and lighting, it set course for Holyhead to land the 10 survivors.

By the time they arrived ashore, Coxswain Evans, then aged 61, had been at an open wheel exposed to the hurricane conditions for nearly 13 hours without a break.

Leesa Harwood, RNLI Community Lifesaving and Fundraising Director, said: ‘The more you hear about the rescue of the Nafsiporos the more incredible it becomes. It is fantastic to have five of the Holyhead crew members with us here today and the modest manner in which Graham, Will, Jackie, Eric and Brian recount the rescue is truly humbling.

‘RNLI lifeboat crew volunteers save lives at sea by heeding the call for help when everyone else is running for cover. Few events in the charity’s history epitomise this attitude better than the rescue of the Nafsiporos and it is right that we celebrate the 50th anniversary today.’

Also attending today’s event will be descendants of the two Gold Medal recipients Lieut-Commander Harold Harvey and Moelfre Coxswain Dic Evans, and also Davey Owens, son of Moelfre Lifeboat Mechanic and Silver Medal recipient Evan Owens.

Notes to editors:

Unfortunately media are not able to attend Friday’s event. Pictures from the event will be sent out on the day. Telephone interviews with Holyhead RNLI’s Graham Drinkwater are available on request.

The attached archive pictures show:

  • A painting of the Nafsiporos by artist K Stone

  • Holyhead RNLI Lifeboat Operations Manager Graham Drinkwater, whose first ever lifeboat shout was to the Nafsiporos (credit RNLI)

  • Five of the Holyhead RNLI lifeboat crew from the Nafsiporos rescue (credit RNLI)

  • Greek survivor Anestis Rokopoulos with his wife and granddaughter. Pictured with Dion Theodorou (right) whose uncle was also rescued from the Nafsiporos (credit RNLI)

The four specially shot 50th anniversary films can be downloaded here XXX.

Also accompanying this News Release is a detailed feature piece with a full account of the dramatic 24-hour lifeboat mission, historic pictures and a fact file with the key numbers from the Nafsiporos rescue.

For more information please contact Chris Cousens, RNLI Press Officer, Wales and West, on 07748 265496 or 01745 585162 or by email on chris_cousens@rnli.org.uk


•Holyhead RNLI Lifeboat Operations Manager Graham Drinkwater, whose first ever lifeboat shout was to the Nafsiporos (credit RNLI)

RNLI

•Holyhead RNLI Lifeboat Operations Manager Graham Drinkwater, whose first ever lifeboat shout was to the Nafsiporos (credit RNLI)
Five of the Holyhead RNLI lifeboat crew from the Nafsiporos rescue

RNLI

Five of the Holyhead RNLI lifeboat crew from the Nafsiporos rescue
Greek survivor Anestis Rokopoulos with his wife and granddaughter. Pictured with Dion Theodorou (right) whose uncle was also rescued from the Nafsiporos

RNLI

Greek survivor Anestis Rokopoulos with his wife and granddaughter. Pictured with Dion Theodorou (right) whose uncle was also rescued from the Nafsiporos

Key facts about the RNLI

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is the charity that saves lives at sea. Our volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service in the United Kingdom and Ireland from 238 lifeboat stations, including four along the River Thames and inland lifeboat stations at Loch Ness, Lough Derg, Enniskillen and Lough Ree. Additionally the RNLI has more than 1,000 lifeguards on over 240 beaches around the UK and operates a specialist flood rescue team, which can respond anywhere across the UK and Ireland when inland flooding puts lives at risk.

The RNLI relies on public donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. As a charity it is separate from, but works alongside, government-controlled and funded coastguard services. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824 our lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved at least 140,000 lives. Volunteers make up 95% of the charity, including 4,600 volunteer lifeboat crew members and 3,000 volunteer shore crew. Additionally, tens of thousands of other dedicated volunteers raise funds and awareness, give safety advice, and help in our museums, shops and offices.

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The RNLI is a charity registered in England and Wales (209603) and Scotland (SC037736). Charity number 20003326 in the Republic of Ireland