Practical Boat Owner

A tragedy at sea and a rescue

Wintry weather brings the recollecti­on of two westside shipwrecks and daring heroics


Aith is the UK’s most northerly lifeboat station, and every spring there’s a simple reminder of the tragedy that brought the lifeboat to Aith: a wreath of holly on a grave in Sandness, at the western corner of Shetland, looking out towards the notorious Vee skerries.

In March 1930, the Aberdeen trawler Ben Doran was wrecked on the Vee Skerries, with the loss of all nine men aboard. It was thought the man steering on that Friday evening had been blinded by the gutting lights; the trawler came right through the first rocks in the dusk and was trapped in the middle of them. She had no radio aboard, and wasn’t seen until the next day, when another trawler, Bracken Bush, spotted her plight, and headed north for Hillswick where there was a phone. At that time there was no lifeboat in Lerwick either, but there was a rescue society. The head of it went to Hillswick, to join the Bracken Bush; yachtsman Theo Kay headed for Voe, hoping for a small haddock boat, which might get closer in to the skerries. He found the Smiling Morn ready to go out on a rescue mission. By now it was Saturday evening. The wind had risen steadily. The Bracken Bush hadn’t yet set out from Hillswick; the Smiling Morn put in to Papa Stour, the nearest island to the Vee skerries, to get a local man as a pilot.

By Sunday morning, conditions had worsened. The swell was washing the decks of the Ben Doran; her wheelhouse had gone, and there were seven men tied to her mast. The rocket line aboard the Bracken Bush could fire 150 yards downwind, but the circling boats could only get 200 yards upwind. The Smiling Morn’s dinghy had been swamped by a wave, and cut free. Theo Kay said afterwards that he was sure the men were unconsciou­s or dead already; others thought they’d seen them ‘beating the scarf’, clapping their arms against their bodies, to keep warm.

One after another, the rescue boats were forced to leave. The men of Papa Stour kept watch from the cliffs, and saw the mast fall, at 4pm on the Sunday.

A poignant twist to the story came two weeks later, once the storm had died down. Two bodies were found on the largest skerry, with a long coil of rope between them. J R Insh, known as Jock, and James Cormack were awardwinni­ng swimmers. It is thought that, during the long hours of Saturday, as no help came and the weather deteriorat­ed, they attempted to swim with a line to the Orval, the largest skerry, where they and their fellow fishermen could have been safe. Their memorial reflects their bravery: ‘Remember J R Insh and J Cormack who gave their lives for their shipmates. Greater love hath no man than this.’

A dozen trawlermen saved

There’s a happier memory for Aith lifeboat at this wild time of year: the rescue of 12 men from the Juniper in February 1967. Avoiding the Vee skerries, the trawler had come too close to the west side of Papa Stour, and was driven ashore by heavy seas. Aith’s Barnet-class lifeboat John and Frances MacFarlane, was launched. In those days she lay on a mooring, and often the ‘flit-boat’ to the lifeboat was the worst part of the journey.

To reach the stricken boat they battered into the weather on a dark, snow-showery morning, with the added anxiety of whether the trawler would last till they got there.

They found Juniper jammed among rocks between a sea stack, the Snolda, and a 200ft high cliff. Coxswain John Robert Nicolson took the courageous decision to take the John and Frances Macfarlane through a shallow passage to get alongside the trawler. Crewmember­s later described that journey to me: the rocks on each side, the waves washing through the passage so that at one point the lifeboat was lifted above the Juniper, and at another the depth sounder registered nothing under her keel, and the dreadful clanging of Juniper’s metal hull. The 12 men were gathered on deck; as the boats came level, they took it in turns to jump, were caught by the lifeboatme­n and bundled below to warm blankets.

The journey home was like another world: the wind behind them, the morning sun coming up, and all the men saved.

Our next lifeboat, Snolda, was named in honour of that rescue.

‘In 1930 there was no lifeboat in Lerwick, but there was a rescue society’

 ?? ?? RNLB Charles Lidbury has frequent practice sessions with the Coastguard helicopter INSET Juniper became stuck to the left of the central stack, the Snolda; the lifeboat went between her and the Snolda to assist
RNLB Charles Lidbury has frequent practice sessions with the Coastguard helicopter INSET Juniper became stuck to the left of the central stack, the Snolda; the lifeboat went between her and the Snolda to assist
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