50 years on from Aith crew’s silver medal rescue

On 19 February, our most northerly lifeboat station Aith will be remembering a Silver Medal rescue that their crew took part in 50 years ago. Twelve lives were saved that day, but how did it happen…
RNLI Aith lifeboat crew of 1967

Photo: RNLI Aith Lifeboat Station

RNLI Aith lifeboat crew of 1967

It was a stormy night

The call to Aith Lifeboat Station came in the early hours of the morning of 19 February 1967. An Aberdeen trawler, Juniper, had grounded on the island of Papa Stour, off Shetland, and was stuck among rocks at the foot of 61 metre high cliffs. 

The weather was so bad that crew member Kenny Henry never heard the maroons firing to alert the crew and had to be phoned instead so he could assist the crew. They also found that the crew was a man short and crew member Bill Anderson was asked to help out – it was his first time on a lifeboat.

Reaching the trawler crew

Once at sea, Aith Coxswain, John Robert Nicolson, had to take the Barnet class lifeboat, the John and Francis MacFarlane, through a very narrow passage only a few yards wide to reach the trawler just after 5am. At one point during the night, the conditions were so violent that one wave lifted the lifeboat right over the trawler! 

It took great teamwork from the engineers and deck crew, for the coxswain to succeed in reaching the trawler which was low in the water and being pounded heavily with surf that was crashing mast high.

By the time that our crew reached them, Juniper’s crew were in poor shape. They were wet and exhausted which added to the hazards of the unpredictable movement of the boats and the bad weather. In spite of this, the lifeboat crew managed to haul all 12 men of the trawler crew aboard the lifeboat without any injuries. Then Coxswain Nicolson had to steer the boat out of the enclosed area that was surrounded by high cliffs and jagged rocks.

Back to shore

When they returned to Aith, it wasn’t possible to bring the lifeboat alongside the pier where they would normally transfer casualties because of its poor condition. So the trawler’s crew had to be rowed across to the shore. 

Recognition for our crew

For his bravery in the face of the challenges that night, Coxswain Nicolson was awarded the Silver Medal for Gallantry. He also received the Maud Smith Award for the bravest rescue by a lifeboat during 1967, and the P and O award for bravery.

For their efforts in the rescue, the rest of the crew each 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.

Frank Johnston, the John and Francis MacFarlane’s Mechanic, recalled 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.’