The 20m Peterhead stern trawler Opportunus IV and her five-man crew were towed to safety last week in a dramatic rescue by the local RNLI lifeboat and the six-week-old Fraserburgh trawler Jacqueline Anne FR 243, reports David Linkie.

The extremely challenging rescue, in rapidly shoaling water, took place just a few yards off Peterhead south breakwater at around 4.30pm on Saturday, 5 February.

Peterhead lifeboat and Jacqueline Anne standing by Opportunus IV, in rapidly diminishing sea room and depth of water, towards the landward end of the south breakwater. (Photos: Peterhead RNLI)

The lifeboat goes under the starboard bow of Opportunus IV to throw a heaving line across, as Jacqueline Anne stands ready to repeat the operation if required.

The stricken trawler starts to come round to the weather as the lifeboat takes the tow.

The mast tip of Peterhead lifeboat stands above a lump of water between the two boats.

Jacqueline Anne had undertaken a 40-mile tow of the disabled Opportunus IV in heavy seas, and the tow rope was shortened as usual on approaching Peterhead. However, the tow parted when the trawlers were just two boat lengths away from passing between the breakwaters into the safety of Peterhead Bay. The local pilot boat Blue Toon and the harbour tug Ugie Runner had been waiting to take over the tow, in line with standard procedure, and berth the disabled trawler safely alongside the Albert Quay.

When the tow parted, Opportunus IV immediately started to drift rapidly toward a rocky foreshore at the landward end of the south breakwater, where the bounce-back of the heavy swell and a force eight easterly gale were creating atrocious conditions.

While the crew rapidly prepared another two ropes, skipper Adam Tait took Jacqueline Anne round into position to pass over the new tows. Although rapidly running out of sea room and depth of water, the ropes were passed across and secured successfully, as Jacqueline Anne tried to bring the tumbling Opportunus IV head to weather and away from the breakwater, with little more than 2m of water under her keel.

Despite constant adjustments to the power and propellor pitch while gauging the prevailing sea, the two ropes parted in very quick succession, leaving Opportunus IV in an extremely precarious situation, which had developed in less than three minutes.

Tasked by HM Coastguard when the original tow broke, Peterhead’s Tamar-class lifeboat The Misses Robertson of Kintail was on scene within minutes. Acutely aware that time was of the essence and that the SAR helicopter, dispatched from Lossiemouth, was only halfway to the casualty, coxswain Patrick Davidson took the lifeboat across the bow of Opportunus IV before making a tight turn, enabling a heaving line to be accurately thrown onto the trawler’s foredeck, where the crew rapidly hauled aboard a nylon rope and secured the tow. With both boats surrounded by broken water, the tow was safety run before the challenging job of ensuring it remained intact began.

With constant power adjustments, the lighter lifeboat started to widen the gap between Opportunus IV and the breakwater. Ten minutes later, and with Jacqueline Anne standing off with a new tow ready if required, Peterhead lifeboat and Opportunus IV passed safely through the breakwaters. Although the actual rescue was over in less than 20 minutes, it was undertaken in an extremely high-risk situation, when lives were very much on the line.

This job was Patrick Davidson’s first shout as coxswain. He said: “This was a really tremendous effort by the crew, showing great teamwork and seamanship by all involved in really difficult conditions. If we had arrived seconds later, the boat would have hit the rocks, and it may have been a different outcome.

“As soon as I saw how close she was to the rocks, I immediately requested the helicopter – due to the perilous situation, I realised we only had one attempt to get this right.”

Lifeboat operations manager Jurgen Wahle said: “This was really a phenomenal performance by all involved, showcasing great leadership from Pat on his first shout as coxswain and excellent teamwork from the rest of the crew.

“This was a critical incident, and the effort from everyone on shore and at sea has resulted in five lives being saved. It is a tremendous outcome, and I’d like to commend the bravery displayed by the crew.”

Opportunus IV skipper/owner James Buchan, who was on a trip off, with skipper Jimmy Thompson in the wheelhouse, said: “The quick actions of Adam Tait – by securing two additional tows, even though he was placing a brand new boat at considerable risk – bought time for the lifeboat to tow Opportunus IV clear. We will always be grateful for the seamanship and bravery shown by the skippers and crews of those two boats. How the situation deteriorated so rapidly is a reminder of the dangers fishermen face at all times.”

What had been expected to be a straightforward tow-in had started some 24 hours earlier, when due to hydraulic problems, it was decided that Opportunus IV would return to harbour. In the early hours of Friday, 4 February, the crew had been awakened by the vessel’s fire alarms, which had been activated by heat coming from the stern shaft coupling.

As the vessel was in fairly close proximity to an oil rig some 20 miles north of Fraserburgh, the engine was kept going until Opportunus IV was beyond any risk of running into the rig.

Skipper Adam Tait, who had been heading ashore to land at Fraserburgh, immediately offered to head straight back out to start towing Opportunus IV to Peterhead.

 

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