14 October 2016

‘It felt like trying to find a needle in a haystack’

Skipper Alan Birkett set out on an overnight fishing trip to the Isle of Man with his son and a friend. But when they fell violently ill, their getaway turned into a rescue mission involving a ferry, a helicopter and three lifeboats. With no suitable GPS onboard, finding the struggling crew took both ingenuity and teamwork.

Here’s how the action unfolded:

Alan Birkett, yachtsman and rescuee

‘We set off from Fleetwood with the intention of sailing over to the Isle of Man and doing some fishing. But by the time we got there it was a bit rough for fishing, so we turned back. The boys hadn't been out to sea before so they panicked and, at 8.45am, put out a mayday call on the radio.

‘At first, I was a bit annoyed that they’d given a mayday, because we were under sail and on our way back. I felt like we would be OK. But they were very sick and clearly very worried by the conditions. The only GPS we had was on a tablet or phone, and the radio was in the cabin, so the boys were trying to give details of our location while I was sailing the yacht.'

Chris Kelly, Captain of the Ben-my-Chree ferry and Relief Coxswain at Peel Lifeboat Station

‘As soon as you hear that word “mayday” your ears prick up. I’ve been on the lifeboat in Peel since 2003, so it’s quite interesting to see a rescue from this different perspective.

'After leaving Douglas, we were requested by the Coastguard to keep a lookout for a yacht whilst proceeding on our normal route to Heysham.

‘Nobody quite knew their position, so it felt like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Upon making radio contact with the yacht we asked their speed, what time they'd turned around and from where. We used this info to plot a line of longitude on the chart, giving us a very rough idea of where they could have been.

‘Our first contact was when the radar detected a target about 9 miles north of our track - this was confirmed by the lookout, who had a brief visual though the fog. They ended up being right where we thought they’d be - about halfway across the Irish Sea, near the start of the wind farm. We reported this information to the Coastguard and they requested that we proceed to assist.

‘We moved into position alongside the boat and provided some lee to help them start to feel a bit better. It would’ve been quite a risky manoeuvre to move them onto the ferry, so the deck crew passed down rope, made them fast and provided them with drinking water. We then sat tight and waited for the lifeboat.’

The yacht and lifeboat alongside the Ben-my-Chree ferryPhoto: Isle of Man Steam Packet Company/Chris Kelly
The yacht and lifeboat alongside the Ben-my-Chree ferry

Ali Clague, Mechanic at Ramsey

‘We were about to sit down for a fundraising meeting when we heard the mayday on the radio. Belfast Coastguard couldn’t get a bearing on the yacht and neither could we from the slip, so we launched to get a better Direction Finder (DF) bearing away from the land.

‘That’s when the Ben-my-Chree got involved. Because their bridge is so much higher, they could hear more clearly and acted as a relay. Once in position, we could then DF the Ben-my-Chree because it was easier to hone in on than the small yacht.

‘We took Dr Gordon Dickens with us, who was immediately transferred across with Crew Member Michelle Stewardson. The guys were incapacitated with seasickness but after an assessment by Gordon, the Coastguard helicopter Rescue 936 was stood down.

‘As we pulled away, the ferry held its position to try and help us by maintaining the lee while we set the tow.’

Ramsey crew transfer back onto
the Ann and James RitchiePhoto: RNLI/Tony Radcliffe
Ramsey crew transfer back onto the Ann and James Ritchie

Tony Radcliffe, Mechanic at Douglas

‘When we got there, the ferry was alongside and Ramsey was putting two crew on. So we stood by to help, if needed.

‘By my calculations, the crew of the yacht had been sailing about 20 hours by then. Combine that with seasickness and it’s pretty debilitating. The conditions were quite lumpy and people can easily underestimate the amount of effort that goes into sailing. After 10 hours, you can get to the point where you’re tired and just can’t function anymore.

‘The transfer of the Ramsey crew once Barrow arrived was a bit hairy because they were en route and no longer had the lee provided by the Ben-my-Chree. Transfers are always a more dangerous part of a rescue but it went off without a hitch and Barrow took over the tow back into Fleetwood.'

Watch the dramatic transfer in this rescue footage:

Jonny Long, Second Coxswain at Barrow

‘I was at work on the Friday when we got the call.

‘We launched once it was established that the casualty was nearer to us - and when we arrived Ramsey had her on tow. We brought our boat alongside and transferred one of our crew members onboard. Ramsey then moved away and took their tow rope in, and we set up ours.

‘The three men on the yacht were slumped in the cockpit, incapacitated by seasickness. But by the time we got back to Barrow, they were up and about. They were a little embarrassed, but they definitely did the right thing, putting the mayday out.

‘The weather wasn’t horrendous that day, but there was about a 2m swell and a force 6 wind from the south-west. They would have been sailing into that wind and it’s not an easy crossing, so they would have had to make a lot of tacks.

Barrow lifeboat preparing the towPhoto: RNLI/Tony Radcliffe
Barrow lifeboat preparing the tow

Alan Birkett, rescuee

‘The actions of the RNLI and the Coastguard were second to none. The lifeboats were just exceptional and it gives me goosebumps thinking about the way the crew acted - very professional.

‘The boys were very reassured to see the lifeboat coming along. They were quite worried and they didn’t realise the enormity of what was going to happen, but the doctor that came on from Ramsey was really nice and made everybody relax.

‘I was a bit embarrassed that the lads had felt it necessary to put the call out but, in retrospect, knowing that you can rely on the RNLI is absolutely fantastic. I can really see how important the RNLI is and what a superb job they do.’

Tony Radcliffe, Mechanic

‘This service demonstrates the importance of using specialist equipment for GPS and carrying a good VHF radio that everyone knows how to operate. Without the ability to follow a radio bearing, a small vessel in rough seas can be a challenging target.

‘Fortunately, on this occasion, the Ben-my-Chree was able to provide an effective visual search platform without which the search may have taken considerably longer.’

Before you head out sailing or motorboating, read our advice pages for the essential steps you can take to stay safe on the water.