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Royal National Lifeboat Institution
Dungeness and Dover Lifeboat Stations
Seven lives saved from yacht Liquid Vortex – 3 January 2012

At 5.24am on Tuesday 3 January 2012, the Dungeness RNLI Deputy Launching Authority, was informed by Dover Coastguard that the 12-metre yacht Liquid Vortex was experiencing severe weather three nautical miles east of Dungeness point with five out of seven crew incapacitated due to seasickness. The Coastguard requested the launch of Dungeness all-weather lifeboat to assess and assist the yacht if required. The crew were paged at 5.30am.

The crew assembled at the lifeboat station and Deputy Second Coxswain Mark Richardson selected his crew for what he expected to be a challenging service. At 5.40am, RNLB Pride & Spirit (Mersey class all-weather lifeboat, 12 metres in length and powered by twin turbocharged Caterpillar 3208 engines, 315 hp each) launched on service at full speed with six crew aboard, Deputy Second Coxswain Mark Richardson in command.

Weather conditions at the launch site were south-west, severe gale force 9. Visibility was poor with squalls. This resulted in a rough sea state in the bay east of Dungeness point.

Once clear of the launch site, contact was soon made with the yacht crew. The radio operator reported that the sails were blown out and the crew were incapacitated due to seasickness. Now clear of Dungeness point, conditions were severe. The wind was south-westerly, storm force 10. A combination of wind and swell resulted in wave heights estimated at 7-9 metres. Visibility was reduced by driving spray.

At 6.15am, Dungeness lifeboat arrived at the yacht. The position now was several nautical miles further east than had been initially reported, due to the storm force wind blowing the yacht in a north-easterly direction towards Dover. Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson positioned the lifeboat at a safe distance of 50 metres from the yacht. Searchlights were used to illuminate the yacht, while the crew assessed and devised a plan to assist. An inflated liferaft was observed tethered to the stern. The foresail had blown out and was streaming from the halyard still attached to the head of the sail.

While a rescue plan was being formulated, at approximately 6.20am, an enormous wave struck the lifeboat and the yacht from astern. The yacht was briefly swamped. Mechanic Trevor Bunney observed the yacht to broach and then turn through 180 degrees. Immediately, the skipper transmitted a Mayday call. He reported that the helmsman had been smashed against the helm and may have a broken jaw and chest injury. The wheel of the yacht was twisted and it was not known if the steering gear was operational. At the same time, the lifeboat engine room bilge alarm sounded, water having entered through the engine room vents. Mechanic Bunney checked and observed a substantial amount of water in the bilges and commenced pumping without delay. Onboard the yacht, lifejackets of the two crew in the cockpit had automatically inflated and the inflated liferaft tethered astern had been washed away.

At 6.30am, Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson decided to try and get two crew members onboard the yacht. Crew members Garry Clark and Jeff Henderson prepared to transfer. Crew member Henderson had the handheld VHF radio and the first aid kit. A number of attempts were made to move closer to the yacht. In each case the severe weather forced Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson to abort his approach for fear of collision. At 6.45am, Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson's plan to transfer his crew members was abandoned in favour of establishing a tow towards Dover.

Due to injury and seasickness, the skipper was now the only person onboard the yacht who was in a fit state to work with the lifeboat crew during the rescue. Two crew were seated in the cockpit with their lifejackets inflated and their safety lines clipped on, but were severely seasick. The remaining four onboard were below decks. At 6.50am, the skipper rigged a bridle and then positioned himself on the bow of the yacht to receive the tow. It took a number of attempts in the storm force wind to approach the yacht and position the lifeboat close enough for the heaving line to be thrown across. The resolve of the crew and gritty determination eventually got the tow line passed to the yacht. By 7.15am, the tow line was secured.

With the tow made fast, the skipper returned to the cockpit. The yacht was twisting violently through 90 degrees. After 20 minutes the bridle chaffed and parted. The crew had no control of the yacht, the large seas and storm force winds were pummelling them. Realising how grave the situation was becoming, Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson decided to make another attempt to get two crewmen onboard. As before, he positioned the lifeboat astern of the yacht and slowly approached. The lifeboat bow momentarily came into contact with the transom of the yacht, so crew member Clark saw his opportunity and leapt from the bow of the lifeboat. By the time he had steadied himself in the cockpit, the distance between the two vessels had opened to a few metres, Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson using full astern power to avoid running over the yacht in the large following sea. There had not been time to transfer the second crew member. It was approximately 7.50am and getting light. The position of the yacht was now three nautical miles south-west of Dover port breakwater and the distance was closing.

With the weather deteriorating, wind gusting violent storm force 11, and the yacht closing Dover, it was agreed between Dover Coastguard, Roy Couzens Dover Lifeboat Operations Manager, and Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson to launch Dover all-weather lifeboat to assist with the planned tow into Dover. At 8.04am, RNLB City of London II (Severn class all-weather lifeboat, 17 metres in length and powered by twin Caterpillar 3412 diesel engines, 1250 hp each) launched on service with six crew onboard, Coxswain Mark Finnis in command.

Meanwhile, aboard the yacht, crew member Clark immediately assessed the two men in the cockpit and acknowledged the skipper. He went down into the saloon and found a male casualty who was responsive but in pain with a blood stained face. Next he checked the two aft cabins. In each was a female casualty; one had knocked her head, but was responsive and severely seasick. The second was severely seasick and needed reassurance. Crew member Clark checked the forward cabin and found a third female casualty who was also severely seasick. He knew this was not going to be a normal shout.

As the yacht was being driven towards the shore at Dover, time was running out to get a tow re-established. Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson again positioned the lifeboat to pass a heaving line to crew member Clark and the skipper on the bow of the yacht. The tow line was passed and reconnected. Six minutes later at 8.10am, the bridle parted for a second time. The position of the yacht was now approximately 2.5 nautical miles south-west of Dover port breakwater.

Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson repositioned the lifeboat by passing close down the port side of the yacht to reconnect the tow. Crew member Clark rigged the lifeboat's bridle through the forward deck cleats to try to prevent the bridle lifting before making it fast on the cockpit winches. He became aware of the stanchions on the deck working loose. It was impossible to stand up; all movement around the yacht was by crawling on all fours.

Having secured the tow again, crew member Clark secured himself in the cockpit. Moments later, a huge wave crashed over the yacht from astern, automatically inflating his lifejacket. His sea boots, although tucked under his waterproof trousers, filled with water. The starboard bow cleat was ripped from the deck resulting in a bridle with two lines of unequal length. Crew member Clark once again crawled to the bow to try to shorten the starboard bridle and equalise the loading. Communications with the lifeboat were extremely difficult. The yacht's main radio could transmit but not receive and the skipper's handheld radio was damaged so that it could receive but not transmit. In effect, crew member Clark had no radio communications with the lifeboat unless he was in the cockpit. At 8.22am, Dover lifeboat arrived on scene and stood by. As Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson eased off on the power, crew member Clark quickly tied a knot in desperation in the starboard bridle rope to shorten it.

As he did so, another wave picked up the yacht and it surfed ahead running over the slack tow line. With the bridle adjusted, the Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson slowly reapplied power, and within seconds it became evident that the yacht was starting to move stern first through the water. The tow rope had fouled the keel or rudder. Crew member Clark immediately shouted to the lifeboat to stop. The yacht was in a grave situation; crew member Clark had no option but to lean over the port side and cut the tow line which was visible just under the surface. The lifeboat crew recovered the shortened tow line back aboard. It was 8.35am. There was considerable doubt whether the yacht could be towed into Dover in the worsening weather. The backup plan was to get in the lee of the Kent coast off the Downs and either transfer the casualties to a lifeboat or to a helicopter. Dover Coastguard tasked Rescue Helicopter 125 to assist.

Seconds later a huge wave broke over the Dungeness lifeboat's port beam. Crew member Terrence Ashford on the port bow was washed across to the starboard side and partially overboard. The quick action of crew member Henderson grabbing his lifejacket strap prevented him going over completely, before they were able to clip on again. Once again bilge alarms sounded as water entered through the engine room vents.

It was approaching 9am. The Dungeness lifeboat crew had been at sea for 3.5 hours in appalling conditions. Fatigue was taking its toll and Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson took the decision to request Dover lifeboat to try to re-establish a tow. Deputy Second Coxswain Clapham made numerous attempts to get Dover lifeboat into position close enough for a heaving line to be thrown. Crew member Clark on the bow of the yacht was concerned there could be loss of life if they couldn't get the yacht under tow and she foundered. She was drifting quickly towards the shore. Eventually a heaving line was passed and as crew member Clark hauled the heaving line, the tow line became detached.

The skipper asked crew member Clark if he wanted the engine started, to which he agreed. Crew member Clark took the opportunity to examine the wheel to see if he could make a temporary repair. Together with the skipper, they managed to pull and bend the wheel back to a point where it could be rotated, albeit with moderate resistance.

Attempts to establish tows by both Deputy Second Coxswains were proving too difficult. By now the yacht had drifted past Dover port. As they tracked north-east, the land started to provide a lee and the local wind speed and sea state decreased. Deputy Second Coxswain Clapham instructed crew member Clark and the skipper to follow Dover lifeboat to seek better shelter off the Downs.

The yacht was still twisting heavily in the following seas, however despite the difficulties with steering the skipper was able to maintain a course following Dover lifeboat. Crew member Clark, for the first time in hours, was able to stand up. He went down into the cabin for the second time since getting onboard. He reassessed the casualties whose conditions were largely unchanged apart from the male casualty with an injured jaw and chest. He was in significant pain. Back on deck, crew member Clark requested the entonox pain relief be transferred from Dungeness lifeboat. Deputy Second Coxswain Richardson manoeuvred the lifeboat close enough for the kit to be thrown across to the yacht. Crew member Clark instructed the casualty in how to self-administer the entonox.

On deck, with the pending arrival of the helicopter, crew member Clark decided he had to try and release the blown-out foresail, which was partially wrapped around the mast. He cut the halyard and slowly the wind worked the sail loose and pulled the halyard through until it carried away in the wind.

At 9.40am, Rescue Helicopter 125 arrived on scene. The winch man was lowered but it took numerous attempts to land him on the deck, due to the strong wind and motion of the yacht. Once onboard, the winch man assessed the casualties and advised crew member Clark that he would take the four in the cabin off. Dungeness and Dover lifeboats stood by.

At 10.25am, the helicopter crew completed their casualty transfer and were departing the scene. The yacht was now just minutes away from grounding in the shallows. Dover lifeboat instructed the skipper and crew member Clark to follow them on a south-westerly heading to deeper water.

The yacht was barely making headway under her own power so crew member Clark requested Dover lifeboat to take them under tow. In the relative lee of the Kent coast a tow line was quickly passed and made fast to the bridle. Deputy Second Coxswain Clapham commenced a route to Ramsgate. Crew member Clark was suffering from the effects of cold.

As they approached Ramsgate port, the wind was storm force 10 with rain squalls, gusting to violent storm, force 11. Crew member Clark took over the steering, afforded the protection of his helmet visor. At 12pm, they entered the outer harbour, the tow was slipped and the skipper resumed helming. The skipper berthed the yacht at 12.20pm.

After a change of clothes for crew member Clark provided by the crew at Ramsgate lifeboat station and a lunch of fish and chips for all the crew, Dungeness and Dover lifeboats departed for their respective stations. Dover lifeboat returned and was fuelled and ready for service at 2.20pm. Dungeness returned to station at 4.40pm.