Royal Navy and RAF Search And Rescue helicopters plucked seven people from a cargo vessel which aground in North Wales last night.
The merchantmen Carrier, with seven Polish crew, several tonnes of stones and 40,000 litres of fuel aboard, was driven aground in foul weather near Raynes Jetty at Llanddulas near Colwyn Bay.
A Sea King from HMS Gannet in Prestwick was first on scene shortly before 10pm
9.50pm BST and winched five of the seven crew off the foundering ship before sustaining damage to the aircraft’s winch 50 minutes later – leaving two crew members and the helicopter’s winchman, PO Mike ‘H’ Henson, on board.
They were stuck on the Carrier for nearly two hours until the duty aircraft from RAF Leconfield, just north of Hull, arrived at the North Wales bay and successfully rescued the remaining ship’s crew and the senior rating – completing the mission just before 1am.
Both helicopter crews had to deal with particularly bad weather conditions both flying to the scene and during the rescues, particularly the RAF helicopter with a slow and difficult cross-country transit in snowy conditions, flying low to use both roads and railways for visual references.
The drama unfolded last night after the 82-metre ship struck rocks in the grip of a Force 9 severe gale shortly before 8.30pm.
Already in the air after a previous call-out, the duty crew of Gannet’s Sea King Mark 5 was diverted to the incident – refuelling at RAF Valley before arriving on scene.
It had initially been intended to winch the crew members clear and deliver them to a safe landing site at North Wales Police Headquarters in nearby Colwyn Bay, but HMS Gannet’s crew had reported what they thought was a small fire on board the vessel – this later turned out not to be the case.
With the risk of fire, the precaution was taken to close the adjacent A55 to allow the helicopter to rapidly winch and then land on the road to disembark those rescued as quickly as possible.
Each of the five people was lifted individual – the final winch catching on a light on the ship. Although this was cleared, the winch was damaged and Gannet’s helicopter diverted to RAF Valley to have it repaired.
“Conditions were extremely challenging,” explained HMS Gannet’s duty observer, Lieutenant Angela Lewis.
“Sea spray from the waves was being whipped up to a height of about 60ft in places and we were in the hover at about 80ft, so it was quite nerve-wracking.
“We put PO Henson down on the deck of the vessel and he then quickly packaged the first four members of the crew in separate winches.
“We dropped them off on the A55 to a waiting ambulance and returned for the remaining three crew and our winchman. Unfortunately we were only able to complete one lift on this second run before the winch was damaged.”
The RAF helicopter had also been busy earlier in the night; it had just delivered an injured seaman to Hull Royal Infirmary when it received the instruction to make for North Wales.
The weather over the Pennines was extremely poor.
Aircraft captain Flt Lt Greg Lings said:
“With low cloud, snow and the icing level we couldn’t fly over the bad weather so we were forced to literally hover-taxi for over an hour with only 500m visibility over the M62 from Goole to Manchester.
“Flt Lt Chris Palgrave did an amazing job getting us to the scene and Sgt Jim Bethell recovered the stranded RN winchman and the remaining two crew members to the aircraft.”
Exchange Royal Navy co-pilot, Lt James Bullock who flew the Sea King during the rescue, said:
“Firstly we had to locate the boat in poor visibility due to the snow.
“We found it pinned against the embankment of the A55 by the high winds which made the recovery of the remaining crewmen more difficult because of the angle we had to hover at due the turbulent and bumpy conditions.”
The RAF Sea King landed on the A55 to hand over the ship’s crewmen to waiting ambulances before recovering to RAF Valley to spend the night.
For the HMS Gannet crew, it was PO Henson’s first shift as a qualified search and rescue aircrewman. He had transferred from Merlin helicopters – and made international headlines last summer when he saved all 13 crew of a stricken tanker in the Arabian Sea while serving with HMS St Albans.
In all, the senior rating rescued 14 people yesterday – nine in a previous call out to hillwakers lost on Ben MacDui, the UK’s second highest mountain, in the Cairngorm Range.
A total of 14 people were rescued by this duty HMS Gannet crew in the course of three call outs yesterday (nine on Ben MacDui and five from North Wales ship; there was a further call to a stricken yacht between the Isle of Man and Holyhead – the RNLI was also in attendance and, in the end, helicopter intervention was not required).
RAF Search and Rescue performed five rescues, assisting six people over the same period.
The rescue operation, which also included two lifeboats, was co-ordinated by Holyhead Coastguard.