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MAY DAY!

The ship was


stranded on rocks,
caught in a gale
that was whipping up
30-foot waves.
The next broadside
could sink it, along
with all 14 crew.
BY ROBERT KIENER

Three shrill beeps on the pager on her bedside table woke


Captain Liz Forsyth at 5:37 in the morning. A former Royal Air
Force helicopter rescue pilot, Forsyth, 34, flew for the U.K.
coastguard from Stornoway, on the Outer Hebridean Isle of
Lewis. She phoned the coastguard dispatcher, who told her,

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U S: TC ROAUTRI TOENS YC RMEADRI ITT I M E A N D C O A S T G U A R D A G E N C Y 3
“We got a Mayday call from a ship with 14 on board that’s being As Liz Forsyth and her three-man crew finish, the chopper was hit by a mas-
washed against the rocks at Hirta at St. Kilda. It’s close to sinking.” flew their twin-engine Sikorsky S92 sive downdraft that sent it plummeting
helicopter toward the Spinningdale, straight down toward the ocean.
Forsyth alerted the base’s engineers to prepare Rescue Helicopter they discussed their options. A power- “Bloody Hell!” shouted Phil War-
100, while the coastguard phoned the rest of the crew, co-pilot ful downdraft could push the chopper rington as he was knocked out of his
into the sea; an updraft or a severe seat behind the co-pilot. Immediately
Michael Melaye, winch operator Larry Slater and winchman Phil cross wind could smash the Sikorsky Forsyth recovered by pointing the
Warrington. The storm that was lashing the Spinningdale on that into the island’s steep cliffs. Hovering chopper’s nose down to gain speed as
over the stricken ship perilously close she turned out of the turbulence, then
February night in 2008 was also buf- bay off Hirta, one of the remote is- to those cliffs and fighting such power- up into a steep climb.
feting Stornoway. As Forsyth, a mother lands of St. Kilda, located some 100 Shaken, Forsyth climbed
of four, drove the ten minutes from her miles west of Scotland. But upon back to 1500 feet and told
home to the airbase through a blind- reaching the crescent-shaped bay, the EACH SET OF WAVES, the crew there was no
ing snowstorm, she remembered what engines suddenly quit and could not some as high as a way they could attempt
another pilot had once told her about
flying into Hirta, an island ringed with
be restarted. Without its engines, the
fishing trawler had no chance against
house, threatened to an approach until the sky
lightened a bit. “If we get
1400-foot cliffs: “It’s a hell of a place to the sea. The pounding waves and gale capsize the trawler. hit like that again, we have
fly into.” Even the official Helicopter
Landing Sites Directory warned that
force winds drove the 169-ton, 76-foot-
long ship into shore, picking it up out
Time was running out. to be able to see our way
out,” she told the others in
the island’s landing pad was “unus- of the sea like a toy boat, then slam- a calm, reassuring voice,
able...at wind speeds in excess of 35 ming it onto the rocks. Because the ful turbulence would take every bit of “We’ll wait a bit.”
knots.” sea was so turbulent, the Spanish crew the crew’s skill, coordination and guts. For the next 20 minutes they flew in
With gale force winds on the island had no choice but to stay below deck Forsyth and her crew decided to a circle high above the island, waiting
now gusting to 70 knots, she had no and wait for their Mayday call to be initially approach the island from the for a glint of light to break over the

A
idea if a rescue was even possible. answered. south, flying high—at 1500 feet or so— horizon.
Fourteen lives were hanging in the Each set of waves, some as high until about three miles out, when they
balance. She and her crew had to try as a house, threatened to capsize the started to descend to 100 feet to iden- As first light broke, Forsyth flew to-
to get to them. trawler. The Spinningdale groaned and tify the Spinningdale. Suddenly, Phil ward the Spinningdale. The scene
screeched as it was pummeled against Warrington spotted what he thought that greeted her was desperate. Waves
The skipper of the Spinningdale had the rocks at the base of sheer 600-foot- was the Spinningdale on his FLIR were washing over the Spinningdale
met the storm at sea and immediately high cliffs. Time was running out. (Forward Looking Infrared) camera. “I and it was listing some 60 degrees to
headed for the relative shelter of the think it’s dead ahead,” he said over the starboard. It looks like it could go over
chopper’s intercom. It was still pitch at any minute, thought Forsyth as she
black outside battled the winds that were constantly
Stornoway St. Kilda Larry Slater announced over the shifting direction. The chopper vi-
(accident site) distress channel, “Motor vessel Spin- brated heavily as Forsyth “pulled”
Edinburgh
Stornoway ningdale, this is Rescue Helicopter more power, lifting the helicopter’s
Glasgow One Zero Zero. collective lever in her left hand to fight
The ship was
N D

Area stranded on rocks Can you flash your the powerful gusting downdrafts.
enlarged 100 miles west of navigation lights?” The coastguard operator in Storno-
A

Before he could way radioed urgently, “Spinningdale


L

London T Stornoway.
S C O
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are in a lot of danger now.” her, Liz Forsyth descended to about A coastguard
Because the ship was wedged 400 feet above the storm-tossed Spin- investigation
against the rocks, hovering over it to ningdale. Although strong winds team arrives
lower Phil Warrington on a cable onto continued to buffet the helicopter, she after the storm.
its deck would call for pinpoint accu- felt more confident now that she could The ship was
later removed
racy. The tips of the chopper’s rotors see the ship and the looming cliffs. for salvage.
would be only 20 feet from the sheer Larry Slater buckled himself into the
cliffs as Phil and Larry would try to “dispatcher harness” that is hooked
winch the Spinningdale crew to safety. into the ceiling of the chopper, then
As the crew discussed possibilities slid open the side door. Freezing air
over their intercom, Forsyth carried and snow slapped him in the face.
out a Dynamic Risk Assessment that Hanging half out of the chopper,
came down to this: if the chopper looking down at the nearly capsized
and its crew crashed, no one would trawler, he began guiding Forsyth to a
be saved. She felt she could control hover above the stricken vessel. For-
the helicopter in the
turbulence but couldn’t
go lower than 130 feet THE CREW DIDN’T KNOW Spinningdale. another coastguard winchman, Billy
above the ocean. That
would give her enough
if they could save During his descent from the chop-
per Warrington was buffeted by the
Deacon, had lost his life in a similar
operation. After saving an entire crew
room to do a “fly away,” the 14 men on the high winds but managed to land on the of ten from a ship washed onto rocks
diving down (and away stranded vessel, bow of the ship and grab a handrail to in a raging storm, Deacon was washed
but they had to try.

M
from the nearby cliffs) support himself. He immediately un- overboard and lost in the waves.
to gain speed before hooked from the cable and gave Slater
recovering, if the craft a thumbs up. Maintaining a steady hover was a non-
were slammed by another downdraft. syth followed his directions, using the “Big wave coming, Phil,” Slater stop battle with the winds. Forsyth had
Most recoveries were from about collective lever in her left hand and yelled into the intercom. Warrington to continually make adjustments, pull-
40 feet above the target. How did Phil the cyclic stick in her right to fight the quickly wrapped his left arm and foot ing more power as a sudden downdraft
Warrington feel about being winched turbulence and hold the Sikorsky in a around the ship’s railing as powerful tried to push the chopper down into
down 130 feet onto the nearly capsized hover some 130 feet above the Spin- 20-foot waves broke over the Spin- the sea, holding back when the winds
trawler in gale-force-ten conditions? ningdale. ningdale’s decks and pushed it first subsided. She also had to keep free of
“Let’s give it a go,” said the experi- Within minutes Phil Warrington, in to port about 20 degrees, then to star- the nearby cliffs—if a blade as much
enced former Royal Navy search and a helmet and a bright orange immer- board 45 degrees. The aft of the ship as scraped them, the chopper would
rescue diver. sion suit, clipped onto the chopper’s was completely covered with water. fall from the sky.
Michael Melaye radioed the coast- winch cable. He sat in the doorway, “Bloody hell,” said Warrington as As waves and wind buffeted the
guard relay station in Stornoway, “We his legs dangling outside as the wind he held on to the port side railing, Spinningdale, Warrington met the
are approaching the bay. No further and snow squalls pounded him. Larry just forward of the bridge. The vet- ship’s skipper on deck. “How many
contact until we have completed Slater radioed “Winching Out” and eran winchman decided not to tie or men on board?” he asked him. “Any
winching.” used the winch control handle to cable himself to the ship’s railing. He injuries?” Relieved that all the crew
lower him on a 5mm [one-fifth-of-an- was afraid the ship could roll over at were healthy, he asked the skipper,
With sheer cliffs looming in front of inch] steel cable to the deck of the any minute. He knew all too well that who spoke a little English, to bring
6 readersdigest.com 00/09 PHOTO: COURTESY MARITIME AND COASTGUARD AGENCY 7
Three crew of Hearing her co-pilot, Michael Melaye, Editor’s Note: None of the crewmem-
Helicoptor 100, warning that the engines were using bers of the Spinningdale were seriously
left to right:
80, 90, 95 percent of their capacity injured during the rescue. The ship,
Larry Slater,
Phil Warrington worried Forsyth. A few more percent- however, was wrecked and later re-
and Liz Forsyth. age points and we may have to abort, moved for salvage. The entire crew of
she thought as she worked to hold the Rescue Helicopter 100 won a Scottish
chopper steady. newspaper’s Unsung Heroes award. Phil
Warrington worked hurriedly be- Warrington was presented with the Billy
tween wave attacks, bundling pairs Deacon Search and Rescue Memorial
of terrified fishermen into the rescue Trophy by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
strops, showing them how to hug onto at Buckingham Palace.
one another as they were lifted free of
the deck, clipping them on to the line
and giving Larry the thumb’s-up sign
to start the winch.
It took about 20 seconds for each
pair to be winched to the chopper
where Larry, still tethered to his dis-
patcher harness, would reach out for
them and pull them into the Sikorsky.

Twenty minutes later it was over.


Fourteen stunned, shivering but happy
Spanish fishermen had been safely
them out two at a time. rescue strop on a fifth crewmember winched into One Zero Zero, followed
After helping the first two fisher- when a huge wave hit the ship broad- by a bruised, battered and soaked Phil
men put the heavy-duty yellow rescue sides and almost knocked it over. Warrington. After Larry Slater con-
strops under their arms, he clipped the Warrington held tight to the railing firmed to Forsyth that Phil was aboard,
strops’ rings to the winch hook with with his left arm. But the crewmember she dipped the nose of the chopper to
a karabiner and gave Slater a thumbs suddenly slipped and fell to the deck. pick up speed and began the long jour-
up sign, followed by two “winch in” Warrington grabbed him before he ney home toward Stornoway.
arm signals. could slide over the side and held tight While unhooking his safety harness,
As Warrington watched the first until the ship listed back to starboard. Warrington turned to Larry Slater and
two men being winched up, he felt the His right arm felt as if it had been al- said, “Well, we can all get back to bed
ship moving beneath him on the rocks. most wrenched out of its socket. now.” As the chopper powered through
Slater radioed: “Another big wave com- The 70-knot winds were also taking the storm, Forsyth told her crew on the
PHOTO: LEILA ANGUS

ing, Phil, hang on!” He managed to their toll on the Sikorsky, as Forsyth intercom, “Good job boys. Well done!”
wrap his left arm and leg around the fought to maintain a hover. The twin and remembered what another pilot
railing as the ship rocked wildly. engines neared their normal engine had once told her about St. Kilda: “It’s
After another pair was lifted to limit of 100 percent, while Forsyth bat- a hell of a place to fly into!”
safety Warrington was tightening the tled fierce downdrafts, then updrafts.
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