Article taken from the Summer 1985 edition of The Lifeboat magazine:
French trawler in distress
AT 0401 on the morning of Friday February 15, 1985, Falmouth’s 52ft Arun class lifeboat, Elizabeth Ann, left the lee of Falmouth docks heading out to sea on service at full speed. Coxswain Viv Pentecost was at the helm; he and his crew had been called out following a report from Falmouth coastguard that a French fishing vessel, St Simeon, was sinking 19 miles east south east of Lizard Point.
For the past six days the wind had been blowing from the east, at or near gale force, creating a short, high sea which carried into Falmouth Harbour despite the protection of St Anthony’s Point. The force 11 violent gale which was blowing on this particular night was carrying spray off each wave and visibility was reduced to 300 yards in rain and snow squalls. The neap tide was at three hours of ebb and air temperature was at freezing point.
The full force of the storm and very high seas was felt as soon as the lifeboat passed Black Rock beacon at 0412. A course of 176°M was set and speed gradually reduced to ease the violent motion of the lifeboat. Ten degrees of leeway were allowed on the course; Falmouth coastguard, receiving information from Royal Navy Sea King helicopters, were constantly giving the lifeboat the updated position of the drifting fishing vessel. At 0505 the lifeboat’s course was adjusted to 198°M and an hour later readjusted to 213°M.
Steaming across the sea, the lifeboat was plunging violently in 50 foot seas and the coxswain was forced to reduce speed to 1600 rpm so that he could maintain a reasonable course.
The VHP direction finding set was used to home in on the casualty in visibility estimated at half a mile and at 0651 she was sighted, right ahead. The 130-ton French trawler was well lit up and at first appeared to be lying head to sea. No one could be seen on deck. As the lifeboat approached she could be seen corkscrewing wildly, falling off 90degrees either side of the wind direction.
Occasionally the seas, now 60 foot high, completely enveloped the vessel, although she seemed to be riding quite high in the water.
Knowing that a salvage pump had been lowered to St Simeon by a Royal Navy helicopter shortly before the lifeboat’s arrival, Coxswain Pentecost, at 0659, took up station downwind of the trawler to await developments. Nearly two and a half hours later the trawler was able to start her engine and, on the coxswain’s advice, relayed by a translator at Falmouth, set a course of 040°M. At first very little headway was achieved, probably because there was still a considerable amount of water inside the trawler’s hull, but by 0946 speed through the water had increased to three knots. Her skipper could not be persuaded to seek a lee to the west of The Lizard peninsula because it would have meant steaming across wind and sea. At 1020 the trawler altered course to 080°M to reduce the effects of free surface water within his vessel.
Falmouth Coastguard, who were aware of the extreme conditions being faced by Falmouth lifeboat and recognising that the presence of a lifeboat would be required for some hours yet, suggested that Penlee lifeboat be launched to relieve Falmouth which had already been at sea for over six hours.
Coxswain Pentecost agreed and at 1105 Penlee’s 52ft Arun class lifeboat, Mabel Alice, slipped her mooring and headed out of Newlyn Harbour.
Coxswain Ken Thomas, at the helm, applied full speed as soon as the lifeboat cleared the harbour. At the entrance 15 foot seas were breaking over the wall; between squalls visibility was about one and a half miles. The wind was blowing from the east south east at strong gale force 9 over a flood tide, two and a half hours from high water. This created a very short steep sea.
Full speed was maintained in Mounts Bay but once the lifeboat had passed close to the east of Low Lee buoy and a course of 150°M was set, speed had gradually to be eased in order to reduce the violent motion of the lifeboat. At 1200 a Decca position of the casualty of six and a half miles, 270°T from Lizard Point was obtained and the lifeboat altered course to 135°M.
For the next half hour the lifeboat experienced some very bad conditions, probably caused by the wind over tide and ledges on the sea bed in the area.
Coxswain Thomas had to ease speed as the lifeboat met 45 foot seas which were breaking overall and stopping the windscreen wipers. Excessive sea clutter made the radar of limited use and, in trying to set a course for Falmouth lifeboat and the fishing vessel, it was realised that the Decca Navigator was slipping lanes due to the heavy motion.
From 1230 the VHP direction finder was used to home in on the two vessels and, just over an hour later, St Simeon was sighted about a mile ahead, with Falmouth lifeboat visible to the north.
An hour and a half before the arrival of Penlee lifeboat, the trawler had altered course to 068°M as her skipper had decided to make for Plymouth.
More fuel for the salvage pump had also been landed by a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter aboard St Simeon. When Penlee lifeboat arrived on scene at 1342 all essential information was passed by radio and Falmouth lifeboat then left the scene, on course for her home port, finally reaching harbour at 1512.
Penlee lifeboat took up station a quarter of a mile astern of the trawler which was steaming at four to five knots on a course of about 070°M, carrying wind and sea fine on her starboard bow.
She was pitching heavily, shipping heavy spray overall and occasionally rolling onto her beam ends. Her freeboard was quite good and she seemed to be faring as comfortably as could be expected for that type of vessel in those seas.
Slowly, thanks to the salvage pump, the amount of water in the trawler’s hull was being reduced and she was making headway towards Plymouth. By 1430 the coastguard reckoned that the search and rescue element of the situation was almost over. The trawler’s skipper would not attempt to steam across the prevailing seas and he was determined to save his vessel by continuing on to Plymouth. With the assistance of CROSSMA, the French rescue co-ordination centre at Joburg, Falmouth coastguard arranged for another French fishing vessel, L’Agardere, to take over escort duties by steaming down sea from the Plymouth area.
Penlee lifeboat stayed in close contact with the casualty throughout the afternoon and witnessed another transfer of fuel for the salvage pump from a Royal Navy helicopter. L’Agardere arrived at 1735 and, after ensuring that both boats were happy with the situation, Penlee lifeboat turned for home. She eventually entered Newlyn harbour at 2015 after over nine hours at sea.
St Simeon carried on slowly towards Plymouth until, at 1907, Brixham coastguard were told that the salvage pump was no longer working and the trawler was stopped and in need of another pump. Plymouth lifeboat station’s honorary secretary was informed and he immediately called out the lifeboat.
At 1920, Plymouth’s 44ft Waveney class lifeboat, Thomas Forehead and Mary Rowse II, cast off from her pontoon and set out on service at full speed with Coxswain John Dare in command.
In Plymouth Sound the wind was blowing from the east, force 8, under an overcast sky. Sea conditions were moderate and visibility about three miles.
Low water coincided with the lifeboat’s departure. On clearing the western exit of the Sound, heading on 215°M, the true wind direction was found to be east south east force 9 and the lifeboat encountered heavy seas.
From Rame Head DF bearings were obtained and a course of 230°M was recommended to the lifeboat. Four cables south east of Penlee Point, at about 1935, this course was set and full speed maintained. Fifteen minutes later the well of the lifeboat was engulfed by a large sea and the handle of the pump they were taking out to the trawler was washed overboard. Hearing of this loss, St Simeon’s skipper insisted that another pump be airlifted to him. Although he did not consider it necessary to transfer any of his crew at this stage, he did ask at what time the lifeboat would arrive. At approximately 2015 the lifeboat obtained a VHP DP bearing of the casualty and altered course to 215°M. Three minutes later the trawler’s searchlight could be seen ahead.
As the lifeboat approached the fishing boat, the crew could see that she was stopped, her bows to the north east, and drifting despite a rope over her starboard bow which might have been an anchor. She was also rolling heavily with seas occasionally breaking over her decks. Although the average seas were about 20 feet, some reached an estimated 50 feet in height. The ebb tide was by this time running west south west at one knot.
A rescue helicopter arrived at about 2100 and, together with the lifeboat, kept close station on the casualty. The other French fishing boat, L’Agardere, also remained in the vicinity but took no part in events. Meanwhile the coastguards found out that there was no other salvage pump available. St Simeon’s skipper made a link call with his owners at about 2145 but not until 2217 did he accept that he and his crew should abandon the vessel.
Had the trawler’s crew been relatively fit and fresh, Coxswain Dare considered that he could have manoeuvred close enough for the men to have jumped aboard the lifeboat. Under the circumstances, however, and after discussion between lifeboat, coastguard, helicopter and casualty, it was deemed wiser that the fishermen should take to their liferaft. With St Simeon beginning to settle more visibly, it took her crew half an hour to manhandle the liferaft across to the port quarter to launch it.
At 2215 the first fisherman boarded the liferaft.
The lifeboat was positioned bows in to the trawler’s port side. Mechanic Cyril Alcock was positioned on the starboard shoulder of the lifeboat and when all the trawler’s crew were in the liferaft, he cast a heaving line into the raft. The line was not grabbed and the lifeboat had to manoeuvre clear as a particularly large sea broke over the trawler. Four more times the mechanic cast the line into the liferaft before it was finally grabbed; then the line securing the raft to the trawler was cut. At this critical moment another huge sea broke over both St Simeon and the liferaft but in spite of this, the liferaft, as it dropped clear of the trawler, was drawn along the lifeboat’s port side.
The coxswain used the helm and engines in such a manner as to make it as easy as possible under the circumstances to transfer the men first into the well of the lifeboat, then into the after cabin. However, the last man needed to be assisted aboard by which time it was 2300. The raft was allowed to drift clear but the coxswain manoeuvred alongside again to collect the trawler’s charts which seemed to be of great importance to her skipper. A course of 065°M was set at full speed but, coming down off one particularly large sea when it was thought the lifeboat was completely airborne, she pounded heavily and the radar stopped working. Speed was then reduced to ease the violent motion. The drift of the casualty and lifeboat had been underestimated and later, when it was realised that the loom of lights on the shore was not Plymouth but Looe, course was altered to 080°M.
The lifeboat arrived back at station at 0135; the five survivors were landed into the care of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society and, after the lifeboat crew had had a hot drink, the lifeboat was refuelled and back on her pontoon, ready for service, at 0225.
For this service, the thanks of the Institution on vellum was awarded to Coxswain Vivian D. Pentecost of Falmouth, Coxswain Kenneth Thomas of Penlee and Coxswain John Dare of Plymouth.
Vellum service certificates have been awarded to Acting Second Coxswain Alan Barnes, Motor Mechanic Donald McLennan, Assistant Mechanic Graham Pearce, Captain David Barnicoat, deputy launching authority. Emergency Mechanic Christopher Price and crew members Brian Thomason, John Barton and Michael Wilson, all of Falmouth lifeboat; also to Second Coxswain Edwin Madron, Motor Mechanic Michael Inskip, Emergency Mechanic Joey Jeffrey, Crew Members Martin Tregonning and Robert Marks of Penlee lifeboat; and to Motor Mechanic Cyril Alcock, Assistant Mechanic The Reverend Ian Watson, Emergency Mechanic Keith Rimmer and Crew Member Ray Jago of Plymouth lifeboat.
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