Rockets from the North Shore
Think of sea rescue and you rightly think of RNLI lifeboats. The lifeboats are usually called out by full-time Coastguards on radio watch, who also call out teams of volunteer Coastguards for cliff rescue and the search for survivors. We used to fire the great line-throwing-rocket which could blast through any gale to rescue the crew from the ships aground, but this work is now done by helicopters and the rocket used by our team at Scrabster has passed into history; one can be seen at Wick Heritage Museum. We saved perhaps 25 seamen in as many years, occasionally using the great rocket and lives may now be at risk without it.
The original versions of our great rockets could sink submarines without needing explosive warheads, so we took care not to destroy passing shipping and, at times, in order to conserve rockets, did not get to fire them at all.
Some of our instructors felt that, as a full complement of volunteers might not be available on the night, we should all learn all the skills. The next instructor might well demand, "Who is Number 4" and we would look guiltily at the numbered armbands on the hooks and try to remember if Number 4 knew how to test the battery leads or retained the secret of the rolling hitch.
The rocket line is carefully laid in it’s box and should rise smoothly after the rocket. At one practice the box was tipped out on the ground so, on firing, the line attempted to lift a great knot of rope into the sky, which broke into two and the rocket, encumbered only by a short line, flew for half a mile, narrowly missed a cow and sank 6 feet into the ground, still sizzling.
Later small groups were trained in a speciality like, in my case, WHIP, who attached our gear to the shore end of the line provided by the ROCKET group. ANCHOR would establish a solid shore fixture. RADIO would communicate with HQ and the wreck and, at night, illuminate the scene with the searchlight. At real wrecks at least one specialist from each group did turn up so we made few mistakes.
Standardise training in best practice!
"DEAD OF COLD AFTER 10 MINUTES"
Most swimmers do NOT die after 10 minutes in a cold sea and a few keep swimming for days. When they do reach shore they are exhausted and very vulnerable to wind chill. Keep searching. Get a Helicopter which can spot bodies, alive or dead, which shore watchers and Lifeboat crews can not see because of glare and the rise and fall of the waves.
A BRACE OF TRAWLERS
During gales the Coastguard then employed Coast-Watchers who occupied the wee white huts on the cliff edge. The man at Victoria Walk, between Scrabster and Thurso, saw the two trawlers heading for Thurso, (the chart then marked Thurso River as a harbour) and drifting while having difficulty getting their vessels lashed together. He informed the HQ at Wick. He was told, "Call back in half an hour".
At the HQ all was not well. An officer had been called for promotion interview and forgotten that he had agreed to stand in as Officer-in-charge that night. (He got his promotion). An untrained Coast-Watcher was called in and, as the gale increased, was soon swamped by calls from all over. He called out the Chief, who leapt into his car but soon ran out of fuel, so played no further part that night.
The Watcher at Victoria Walk duly reported to Wick that the two trawlers had been aground at Thurso East for 20 minutes. The Watcher at HQ managed to call out the teams of Auxiliary Coastguards and also two off-duty Officers who dashed to the Landrover which is always ready in the garage just in front of the trailer carrying the gear. They reached Thurso before they remembered that the trailer was not coupled. I leapt into duffel coat and wellies but was surprised to find the Scrabster Rocket Shed in darkness and squinted through the window to see if I was late and the gear gone. The gear was there. Bill Deans then arrived and he drove to the Police Station to get the key.
We had not then been issued with Landrovers and relied on the lorry provided by Highland Buses, so I drove to the garage to speed them up. The bus garage was brightly lit but the emergency driver, "permanently available", was not to be found. Warm tea stood on the table so I shouted and banged on the buses and thought about the Marie Celeste mystery. I managed to find the phone number of the manager who agreed to call out a driver. This seemed to me to lack urgency but the manager would not drive the lorry himself or allow me to drive. Much later the driver appeared, uniformed, freshly shaved, quite unable to understand my urgency. (Later it transpired that the "emergency driver" was observing events from Thurso harbour, unaware that he was a key participant).
We loaded the lorry with the gear, reached the long soggy field in Thurso East, our headlamps sweeping the bogged-down school bus used by the Scarfskerry team, but getting stuck in the mud ourselves before reaching the stuck lorry used by the John O’Groats team. The gale screamed in our faces as we looked over the sea bank. Coastguard searchlights lit up the foaming waves. The wreck scene was made dramatic by a fire on the wing bridge of one trawler. This was an attempt by the crew to draw attention to their plight. As a wave receded the whole keel could be seen resting on the slate and equally often the deck was swept by solid sea, so their alarm was understandable. The other trawler was high and dry. Our parachute flares gave us about 3 seconds of illumination before being blown far inland briefly lighting up the fields and bogged-down lorries.
The Scrabster divers, seeing their job heading for Thurso rocks, were first on the scene by an hour or two and had tensioned one of the ship’s cables so the crew could crawl down the cable hand -over- hand. The crew would not wait for our breeches-buoy so all we could do was to stabilise the shore end of the cable and assist the crew through the surf. The divers clung to the surging cable in the deeper surf and all got ashore uninjured.
1/ Sort out transport: later Scrabster was allocated a Landrover.
LADDER RESCUE (5-12-71)
Above the howl of the gale could be heard the grinding of the hull on the rocks. We tied two cliff ladders together and dropped the end to the deck. A brave uniformed man climbed down to the heaving wave-swept deck, tied a line to each crewman in turn and we helped them climb the ladders, each man clutching a suitcase rattling with bottles.
We were hindered by the arrival of a local drunk who would appear on extreme pinnacles to direct operations. We, encumbered with safety lines, had difficulty capturing him and, once released he would reappear, attracted like a moth to the lights.
We had not then been issued with a Coastguard Landrover so when all was finished we hooked our heavy trailer behind Henry Swanson’s long-wheelbase Landrover and set off straight across the bog past two stuck Coastguard Landrovers unencumbered by trailers. "Don’t slow, don’t turn" said Henry as we squelched into the night.
I visited the scene the next day and saw the most of the ship reduced to the keel and a few ribs.
Lifeboats can save lives even after the ship is ashore.
"I SEE A FIRE ENGINE" (22-8-75)
The Clarkwood, relatively undamaged, had bounced into a natural low tide harbour which trapped her but protected her from the violence of the waves. To escape she had to wait until the tide rose and the protection of the rocky wall diminished. As the trawler dodged the waves and the rocks, damage accumulated to propeller and rudder. The less necessary crew came ashore by life raft. The Lifeboat fired its small rockets but could not come close enough to reach the trawler and establish a tow.
A uniformed Coastguard was with us but was unwilling to take charge which inhibited action by us. Ultimately I proposed firing a rocket line to land on both ships. We alerted the two crews, and Ken Butler fired a perfect shot, landing the line on both craft. We still had the shore end of the rocket line which would have been useful if the Clarkwood sank. The crew brought a heavy trawling cable up to deck, tied it to the rocket line and the lifeboat pulled in 100 yards of rocket line before the heavy cable fouled on the sea bottom. and the Clarkwood was doomed.
The crew had omitted to cut the shore section of the rocket line and tie it to their rail so the shore end was also pulled out to sea with the heavy cable. We had to fire another rocket to establish the breeches buoy and take off the rest of the crew.
In retrospect I realise that, much earlier, we should have alerted the skipper to bring his cable up to deck all ready with floats and also to have cut and preserved the shore length of the rocket line.
A dramatic newspaper photograph showed our Brian Hughes up to his chest in foaming water with the rocks and the sinking trawler.. He was actually kneeling, looking for his glasses!
Headquarters should share information.
The offshore trawler we came to call the "Boston Strangler" crept towards the shore. After several repeats of the measured request and information about the tow, we heard "I shee no lifeboat". "THE LIFEBOAT HAS A BLINKING BLUE LIGHT ON TOP", "I shee no blinking blue light", followed by a mighty bow wave gleaming white in the darkness as the Strangler surged forward. The Lifeboat chopped the line and fled for safety, so the window of opportunity closed. On the next tide the "Boston Lincoln" floated off with little damage and at the Mission a crewman remarked, "we took Holborn Head a bit neat".
Survive to rescue another day!
The night was still, the water oily calm and curtains of mist hovered over the serpentines of cold fresh water which floated on the slightly less cold salt sea. The Lifeboat, the Coastguard and the berthed car ferry St. Ola, all used their searchlights to seek survivors. (We now know that by then both men were dead.)
The Lifeboat had watchers in the bow who were not dazzled by reflections from the mist and their searchlight operator, who must
frequently have been dazzled himself, smoothly traversed his lamp so that observers at sea and ashore could use his light.
Remember you are part of a team!
ONE MAN ROCKET
When the tide was low I walked out, dodging rockpools, taking a rocket line out to the casualty. I picked up a stone and knocked on the steel hull. A sleepy deckhand appeared, took the line and tied it to his rail. Luckily the calm persisted and at dawn they floated off, remembering to untie our line.
A ship’s bridge must never be left unattended at sea.
My wife was surprised to see a frogman crossing our lawn and asking for buckets. While diving for harbour works at Scrabster he had resurfaced to discover his steel workboat drifting towards the distant shore. He swam after the boat and saw it beach. His efforts to bale using our buckets, were frustrated by waves.
That night great yellow machines bulldozed a ramp up the cliff near the Bishop’s Palace and the workboat was dragged up and returned by road to Scrabster as if nothing had happened. The ramp is still there. We were presented with new buckets.
DINGHY RACE TRAGEDY
A large wave caught the fibreglass boat broadside on and drove it inshore, tipping him out. The same wave also separated the other men from their respective crafts and the three men struggled separately towards the shore and, able to stand briefly in the trough of a wave, acknowledged each other. Only two reached the beach, the two wearing lifejackets. The fibreglass boat, the engine still running, headed back to sea in an arc, running ashore later with life jackets still in the locker. A stone bench near the Rocket Shed commemorates Gordon Foyle.
Wear a lifejacket in small craft and a safety line offshore.
ROYAL SALUTE (August 1990)
The smoke of the first barrage so obscured the scene that we never again saw the signaller let alone the next signal! We merrily fired at random. Almost every one of these ancient flares ignited, some perhaps slower or less brilliant than when new.
Regularly purchase new flares, but keep the old ones as well. If you need one you may need the lot.
FREE FALL AT DUNNET HEAD
Assume survival until proved incorrect.