Anniversary of the saving of 12 trawler men by Aith RNLI volunteers
The RNLI’s most northerly lifeboat station is remembering a silver medal rescue 50 years ago during which 12 crew were saved from a trawler.
On 19 February, 1967, Aith’s Barnet class lifeboat, the John and Francis MacFarlane launched to an Aberdeen trawler that had grounded on the island of Papa Stour, off Shetland.
The trawler was jammed among rocks at the foot of sheer cliffs 200 foot high and the crew were unable to use their life rafts.
Aith coxswain John Robert Nicolson took the lifeboat, in rough weather, through a very narrow passage only a few yards wide to reach the trawler after 5am.
The RNLI’s official report of the rescue says, ‘With good teamwork between engineers and deck crew, the coxswain finally succeeded in reaching the casualty which was then low in the water with decks awash and being pounded heavily with surf crashing mast high.
‘The survivors were in poor shape, wet and exhausted, which together with the movement of the boats and the weather made the rescue a most hazardous task.
‘However, by a superhuman effort by all the lifeboat crew all 12 men of the trawler crew were hauled aboard the lifeboat without any injuries. A remarkable achievement considering the heaving and rolling that was taking place.
‘Once all hands were accounted for, Coxswain Nicolson had to undertake the difficult task of getting the lifeboat back out of the very enclosed area surrounded by high cliffs and with jagged rocks and skerries in various places.’
The coxswain, who died in 2004, was awarded the silver medal. He also received the Maud Smith Award for the bravest rescue by a lifeboat during 1967, and the P and O award for bravery.
The rest of the crew received RNLI Thanks of the Institution inscribed on vellum. They were Frank Johnston, Kenny Henry, Jimmy Manson, Wilbert Clark, Jim Tait, Andy Smith and Bill Anderson.
Kenny is the father of current Aith coxswain Hylton Henry. Hylton said, ‘It is phenomenal to think what that crew did in that lifeboat in such conditions.’
The trawler was stuck in the passage between Lyra Skerry and Papa Stour and the lifeboat mechanic Frank Johnston recalled on the 40th anniversary of the rescue: ‘If you’d stopped to analyse tides and currents and charts you’d never have got in there. We came back up the voe with a great sense of well-being.
‘We’d saved the men. I couldn’t believe that we’d done it, that I’d been involved.’
Frank is the grandfather of current Aith mechanic John Robertson’s wife Kayla. John Robert Nicolson’s nephew, David Nicolson, is on the current crew.
The lifeboat had a top speed of about nine knots and the weather was so bad that one crewman, Kenny Henry, never heard the maroons firing to alert the crew to the emergency. He was alerted by a phone call. For another crewman, Bill Anderson, it was his first time on a lifeboat. The crew was a man short and he was asked to help out.
The Aith crew also recalled that they were struck by the noise of the trawler, Juniper, which sounded like a tin can grinding as it moved on the rocks.
The conditions were so violent that one wave lifted the lifeboat right over the Juniper.
When the lifeboat returned to Aith pier, it was not possible to bring it alongside due to the pier’s poor condition, and the trawler’s crew had to be rowed across.
The fishermen enjoyed mock turtle soup on the lifeboat, and then had tea and sandwiches with crewman Wilbert Clark’s parents before going to the seamen’s mission in Lerwick.
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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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