6 November 2017
Rescue of the Green Lily
On 19 November 1997, one of the most dramatic rescues in RNLI history took place. Battling storm force winds and enormous waves, the crew of Lerwick Lifeboat Station helped rescue the 15 crew members of the Green Lily. It was a rescue filled with tragedy and triumph.
It is also the latest rescue where a Gold Medal was awarded. Coxswain Hewitt Clark, one of the most decorated lifeboat crew in RNLI history, received the award for his incredible seamanship during the rescue.
The spring 1998 edition of Lifeboat magazine gave a detailed account of the rescue:
Heroism and tragedy as ship goes ashore in 50ft breakers
With a 3,000-ton cargo vessel just yards off a rock-strewn coastline, and being driven inexorably ashore by breaking seas almost 50ft high, the crew of the Lerwick lifeboat had just one option if they were to save any of her 15-man crew. In incredible conditions, they took their Severn [-class lifeboat] between the casualty and the shore and, with only yards to spare, snatched five people to safety.
Their heroism and skill earned Coxswain Hewitt Clark the RNLI’s highest honour – the Gold Medal, with Bronze Medals for each of her other five crew.
Tragically, Bill Deacon, winchman on the Coastguard helicopter which saved the 10 remaining survivors, lost his life when he was swept from the casualty. The RNLI has recognised his courage with a posthumous Thanks on Vellum, with a joint Vellum also going to the remainder of the aircraft’s crew.
The conditions during this service were truly horrendous. A south-easterly of up to Force 11 had been battering Shetland for three days, and all ferry sailings had been suspended. The seas had time to build up to gigantic proportions, rolling in to the rocky coastline up to 50ft high.
In these conditions, the refrigerated cargo vessel Green Lily developed engine trouble on the morning of Wednesday 19 November 1997, when she was about 15 miles to the south-east of the lifeboat station.
Although the Coastguard told honorary secretary Magnus Shearer about the problem at 0850, the lifeboat wasn’t needed at that time as tugs had been alerted and were on their way to the scene.
The 225ft tug Tystie from Sullom Voew and the 210ft rig supply ship Gargano from Lerwick, both set off for Green Lily’s position, and by 1149 everything appeared under control. Gargano had established a tow line and was headed for Dales Voe Base just north of Lerwick where she planned to rendezvous with Tystie.
But then the severity of the conditions began to cause problems. Just over half-an-hour later, Gargano reported that the tow had parted, and with wind and sea conditions as they were, it would take at least an hour to re-establish it.
With Green Lily drifting ashore at about two knots, the situation was obviously now very serious, and at 1255 Lerwick’s Severn Michael and Jane Vernon was asked to launch and the Coastguard helicopter ‘Rescue Lima Charlie’ was scrambled.
Inside Bressay sound there was some shelter, if that is the word, with the wind south-east at Force 9to10 and seas over 15ft high.
Coxsawin Hewitt Clark took the lifeboat out of the sound while the crew strapped themselves in and prepared for what was obviously going to be an extremely rough passage.
Out of the sound, the full severity of the storm hit – Force 11 winds and waves now rolling in from the open sea – and Hewitt Clark had to slow the lifeboat down as she climbed seas which were now almost 40ft from trough to crest.
Giving the extreme seas off Bard Head a reasonable berth, the lifeboat altered course to the north-east towards Green Lily – which was now only a mile and a half from shore and still drifting towards it at 2 knots. With the seas now just aft of the beam, the Severn could slow her paces and, despite the massive waves, she was able to average more than 20 knots, arriving at the scene at 1350.
The rescue helicopter had also arrived, but she could not attempt to lift anyone clear with the ship beam-on to the seas and rolling violently.
The tug Tystie had arrived ten minutes before and immediately tried to put a tow line aboard Green Lily. Manoeuvring as close as he dared to the casualty, her skipper managed to get a heaving line aboard in a matter of minutes, but there were only two men on the fo’c’sle of Green Lily and they were struggling to get the line aboard by hand – despite assurances by the Master that power was available at her windlass.
Eventually a third man appeared on the fo’c’sle, the line was taken aboard and, by 1402, Tystie was able to report that the tow line was made fast.
Green Lily was still drifting inexorably shorewards in the violent conditions and was now so close that the waves were being reflected from the cliffs, sometimes reaching 50ft and breaking heavily.
The lifeboat stood off nearby, moving around the casualty but more often finding what lee she could off her port side while Tystie paid out her line ready to take up the tow.
But at 1410 another catastrophe struck. In the massive, confused seas Green Lily was thrown heavily to port at the same moment that the tug was thrown to starboard. The winch could not pay out fast enough to prevent the lines snatching, stranding and finally parting. Green Lily was now less than a mile offshore; engineless; with no tow line aboard; and the helicopter could not work the violently rolling deck. The situation was grave.
Hewitt Clark asked the Master to drop Green Lily’s anchors to try to reduce her drift, but as he stood by off her port side in rapidly worsening conditions, he did not feel that there was anything further they could do to help.
There did not seem to be any great urgency aboard the casualty and it wasn’t until 1425 that one anchor was let go, on a relatively short scope.
The anchor did at least slow her drift and swing her bow about 45 degrees into the wind, but by now she was less than half-a-mile from the shore.
Seas were breaking over her and she was still rolling so violently that the helicopter could not attempt an evacuation.
Hewitt Clark realised that whatever the dangers, some sort of approach would have to be made if anyone aboard Green Lily was to be saved.
The only possible approach was on the casualty’s port side, to take advantage of what little lee there was, but to do so put the lifeboat between the rocks and the drifting casualty with very little searoom in which to manoeuvre.
Despite the extreme risks, this was the only option, so Hewitt contacted Green Lily’s Master and urged him to get his crew ready to evacuate before it was too late.
Taking to the upper steering position, exposed to the weather but with better visibility, he ranged the remaining crew along the lifeboat’s starboard side and made ready for the approach.
The lifeboat closed to within 20ft or 30ft of the casualty’s side, at times lifted above her decks on a crest and at others below her waterline in a trough. It seemed to take some time for the survivors to appear, with the casualty constantly drifting closer and closer to the shore, but eventually six or eight men made their way down the casualty’s port deck wearing lifejackets – and carrying their luggage.
Operating at the very limits of the boat and his experience, Hewitt made his first approach, driving the lifeboat’s starboard shoulder against the ship’s side. There was a constant danger of the lifeboat and casualty rolling towards each other, with potentially catastrophic results, and as soon as the lifeboat was lifted to deck level, he had to abort the attempt and go hard astern on both engines to take her clear.
With the shore growing ever closer, Coxswain Clark made numerous attempts to put the lifeboat alongside, often having to back away because of the violent motion of the two boats in the vicious seas.
Whenever the decks of the lifeboat and casualty were level, the crew grabbed a survivor and literally hauled them over the ship’s rail and on to the lifeboat. Each time a survivor was brought aboard, Hewitt had to take the lifeboat clear by going astern on one engine to swing the stern out, then astern on both to pull her clear. Only then could he line up for another run.
Every time the lifeboat went alongside she was slammed into the unyielding side of the ship, and the crew were convinced that she must eventually suffer serious damage. On one run, the lifeboat became trapped alongside and, afraid that Green Lily would roll on top of her, Coxswain Clark had to go full ahead on the port engine and astern on the starboard to pull the stern round. This did cause some damage, with a stanchion, some toe rail and a short length of fendering carrying away.
Crew member Michael Grant was clipped on to the guard rail where stanchion carried away but, with the help of crew member Ian Leask, the stanchion was brought back aboard and Michael’s harness re-fastened to a secure point further aft. He tore a tendon in the process, but carried on regardless of the pain.
With each passing minute, the mass of seething white water which was the shore was growing closer, and the lifeboat was left with less searoom. Sometimes no-one was at the rail when the lifeboat went in, and on another run a survivor had such a firm grip on his luggage that the crew could not lift him aboard.
Unknown to the lifeboat crew, the rig supply vessel Maersk Champion was attempting one last desperate manoeuvre.
In an excellent display of seamanship, her Master drove his vessel close across Green Lily’s bow, managed to grapple her anchor cable, paid out some line and began to tow her to seaward.
As her bow began to swing up into the wind, the sight lee on her port side disappeared, and the lifeboat could no longer get alongside. Just 200 yards from the shore she broke clear with five survivors aboard and stood by.
However, the manoeuvre which had stopped the lifeboat working made it possible for the helicopter to move in, for with the ship now head to wind the motion was considerably reduced.
As ‘Rescue Lima Charlie’ began the dangerous work of lifting the remaining ten survivors, Green Lily’s anchor cable parted and her fate was sealed. Her bow paid off to starboard and very soon she was driven ashore by the stern, swung round beam-on and pounded by the huge breakers. It was approximately 1455.
Tragically, the helicopter winchman, Bill Deacon, was washed overboard from Green Lily by a huge breaking wave and lost. He had helped ten men to safety before he lost his own life. The helicopter’s winch wire also became snagged shortly afterwards and had to be cut to free the aircraft.
With conditions so extreme close to the shore, the lifeboat dared not venture in close enough to search for Bill Deacon and returned to Lerwick to land the survivors.
Michael and Jane Vernon returned to the scene as soon as possible and made a close pass along the coast to try to find Bill Deacon. She was forced to abandon the attempt and turn head to sea after first pass as darkness was falling and Green Lily had already started to break up. The water was littered with cargo debris, steel hatchcovers, pallets, oil and lines and the lifeboat’s decision to abort the search was made after a huge wave broke over quarter, leaving debris and a film of oil all over her.
Thanks to the bravery of the Lerwick lifeboat crew and the crew of the Coastguard helicopter 'Rescue Lima Charlie', all fifteen crew members onboard the Green Lily were saved.
For more dramatic stories from lifesaving history, visit the heritage section of the RNLI website.