A Year of Tragic Contrast
2007 was a year of extreme highs and lows for the Whitby lifeboat station. After seeing its old station demolished to be replaced with a new state of the art station in September the future looked bright for the crew. However just two month later in November the lifeboat and her crew were involved in a tragic incident that made the national news headlines after the loss of three lives.
The weather on the 23rd was extremely poor with high seas and a force eight gale warning in place. The harbour staff had sealed off the pier as a result of such treacherous weather, it must have come at such a surprise for them to see a cabin cruiser Last Call, apparently heading for piers. Lifeboat personnel inside the station made every effort to communicate with those on board to warn them of the impending danger.
The Last Call with three persons on board seemed oblivious to the breaking waves at the harbour entrance. Unable to make radio contact with the occupants of the boat, the crew of the lifeboat began preparations for the imminent call to service. The 22ft boat was seen to be in difficulty as soon as it left the protection of the sheltered harbour. Hit by successive high waves the cabin cruiser seemed to be making back towards the harbour however, turning the boat brought it broadside to the massive waves shortly afterwards the boat was seen to capsize 100 metres from the pier extensions.
The offshore lifeboat battled through 20ft to 30ft waves and mountainous seas and was on the scene in minutes, getting two male persons aboard the lifeboat as soon as was safe to do so. Even with such a short time in the water there seemed little hope of survival.
The upturned boat had drifted inshore towards a treacherous rock ledge and beyond the reach of the offshore lifeboat, and there was question of the inshore lifeboat being launched in such perilous conditions. As the lifeboat made its return to the station frantic efforts were made to resuscitate the two unconscious men who undoubtedly would have been suffering from acute hypothermia.
During this an RAF rescue helicopter had arrived on scene and under the direction of the local coastguard unit they were able to locate the remaining female member of the upturned boat plucking her from the frigid water, making immediately for the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough she was though beyond help.
In previously unseen circumstances the Great North Air Ambulance landed on Tate Hill pier just a short distance from the lifeboat station and was soon in the air with one of the men on route the the same hospital. The second man was taken by road ambulance to Scarborough District Hospital, failing to survive the night.
In the aftermath of the incident there were a number of individual and inevitable enquiries, all hoping to shed some light on why the people had left the confines of the harbour in such poor conditions and possibly answer as to why the boat was subjected to its eventual fate. There has been a number of stark revelations which explain some of the unanswered questions, although many remain unanswered never to be known. The skipper of the boat was reported to have only bought the craft a couple of weeks prior to the fateful day, it is also believed the VHF radio was tuned to American frequencies.
Perhaps the most tragic revelation came from a Coastguard spokesman, who explained that they had contact with the female passenger aboard the ill fated cabin cruiser via a mobile telephone. Coastguard's talked to the desperate woman for several minutes before the operator heard "Oh my God" and the line went dead! A spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said conditions were so bad, with huge sea swells from the north, it was fortunate they were pulled from the water within minutes before being swept away all together.
Local people expressed disbelief that anyone had gone to sea at all in such bad weather with all the fishing fleet safely moored in the harbour. Witnesses also praised the bravery of the lifeboat and RAF helicopter crews, who battled to save the causalities in extreme circumstances.
The three casualties were revealed to have come from Middlesbrough and Redcar the men were brothers with the female passenger being a partner of one of the men. After the inquest were finalised the parents of the casualties expressed their gratitude towards the emergency services.
In a statement issued by North Yorkshire Police on behalf of the family, they said “The family would like to take this opportunity to thank all the emergency services that risked their own lives in the brave rescue attempts. We know that everything that could have possibly been done by Whitby RNLI and the RAF Sea King was done and that they carried out their rescue in very difficult circumstances.”
Although reported nationally, there is nothing to be gained here revealing the identities of the casualties and I have therefore chosen to respect the loss as a sad and tragic incident. People often have the misconception that lifeboat crews around the British isles journey out during the summer to tow disabled craft back, however this one incident alone summons up the courage each faces when called, be it day or night, summer or winter. It takes a special kind of person to do all this moreso as lifeboat crews are essentially just volunteers.
In March 2008, in recognition of the brave efforts that day, station personnel were presented with a Framed Letter of Thanks by RNLI Chairman, Sir Jock Slater. The presentation heralds the initiative, teamwork, and extreme professionalism the crew displayed during the fateful incident. Sir Jock, concludes his letter: "This was a service with a sad result but conducted in effective cooperation with all those involved and in the best tradition of the RNLI. Roy Weatherill, Lifeboat Operations Manager, said: I am sure that non of us will ever forget this tragic incident, during which Whitby's RNLI crew, along with the RAF, air ambulance, coastguard and harbour staff, did everything they could do to save the lives of these three people.
Roy Weatherill, assistant coxswain Nick Botham, Sir Jock Slater and full time mechanic Glen Goodberry
There is a detailed summary of the tragedy within the BBC News page, the all weather offshore lifeboat, George & Mary Webb pictured above making its way out of the harbour to assist those lost from the cabin cruiser Last Call.
Copyright © Colin Brittain 2012 All Rights Reserved