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The Factory Ship Pionersk

67 saved from stranded factory ship in Storm Force winds Lerwick's Arun class lifeboat Soldian was involved in another service to a Russian factory ship on 31 October 1994, another service in very bad weather and involving the evacuation of a large number of people.There was a SE Gale Force 8 gusting to Storm Force 10 when Shetland Coastguard contacted Lerwick lifeboat station at 0056 on 31 October 1994. The 10,074 tonne Pionersk with 155 people on board had run aground at Trebister Ness, about 3 miles south of Lerwick and the Coastguard requested the lifeboat launch immediately.

Soldian launched at 0116, and by 0130 she was alongside Pionersk. The casualty's midships section lay on rocks with her bow facing seaward and her port side to the shore. She was yawing violently in a heavy swell.

Ladder The coxswain decided to start taking the crew off from an accommodation ladder over the stern, and he managed to recover four survivors before the ladder became so badly damaged that it could no longer be used.

By manoeuvring around the stern of the casualty and between her and the rocky shore and sandy "baas' under the surface coxswain Hewitt Clark put the lifeboat alongside a pilot ladder hung over the casualty's port side. The wind was gusting to Storm Force 10 from the SE, causing a strong swell and surge between the shore and the casualty whichmade it very difficult to handle the lifeboat which was being tossed around in the boiling water often less than 20ft from the cliffs.

At times the casualty was yawing 60ft back and forth and also rolling down on top of the lifeboat. Coxswain Clark had to make between 70 and 80 approaches to recover the other 63 men from the stricken vessel, as only one man at a time could be taken off the ladder. The lifeboat crewhad to hold on to the rails as the lifeboat rolled and, at the same time, help the frightened Russian crew members down on to the heaving deck of the lifeboat before the casualty rolled down on top of them again. At times the lifeboat crew had to crouch below the level of the for'ard inboard rails to avoid being crushed between the two vessels.

The casualty was now beginning to take in water fast, and the engine room was flooded. There were signs that the for'ard holds were also leaking and, as the water level rose the engines and generators stopped. With all power lost there was a complete blackout and the lifeboat was now working in total darkness.

Oil To add to the difficulties the casualty's bunker oil was now beginning to leak into the sea where it was whipped up by the high winds and the down-draught from a rescue helicopter now on scene.

The lifeboat and crew were constantly sprayed with a highly unpleasant mist of diesel oil.

Additional hazards were provided by large grips and bags thrown from the high deck level of the casualty as the survivors tried to bring some of their possessions with them and leaking ammonia from the ten tons of the gas carried on board as the refrigerant in the fish freezing equipment. The battering the vessel was receiving was causing pipes to break on board and allowing the gas to escape.

While the rescue attempt continued the harbour rugs/pilots vessels Knab and Kebister tried to put a line on board the vessel to pull her free. A skeleton crew of 15 were to remain aboard the casualty to attach lines but as the condition of the vessel worsened this was abandoned.

At 0248 the lifeboat advised the Coastguard that 67 survivors were on boardand that she would return to Lerwick, as no attempt would be made to transfer anyone to the harbour vessels because of the sea conditions.

By 0310 the lifeboat was alongside her berth to land the survivors and then returned to the casualty to stand by while the helicopter evacuated the remaining crew.

Although the weather was slowly moderating and the wind strength dropped quickly sea conditions were still heavy, with a south east swell running into the Voe.

At 0429 the Coastguard asked the lifeboat to pick up the remaining four crew, including the captain, as the helicopter which had made eight lifts to take off 84 men was now refuelling at Lerwick.

Plans were made to evacuate them from the pilot ladder, but the helicopter returned and lifted them before it could be put into action. The lifeboat stood by until all the crew were accounted for and then returned to her station. By 0535 she was alongside, refuelled and ready for service.The rather factual accounts from lifeboat coxswains can often make services such as this seem almost routine. It is therefore worth quoting directly the remarks of Magnus Shearer, the station honorary secretary, on his report of this service: 'Once again the coxswain and crew were called on to make a superhuman effort in rescuing 67 crew members from a vessel in what amounts to impossible conditions.

'The fact that no lives were lost or injuries sustained sometimes makes it seem easy. But the seamanship, consummate skill and boat handling ability of Coxswain Hewitt Clark second to none. To go in and take the lifeboat alongside the vessel where there was absolutely no margin for error is a skill in itself, but to do it in the conditions which prevailed that night and in total darkness is beyond belief- to do so over 70 times without loss of life or injury is surely nothing short of a miracle.

'The crew's part in this rescue, and their faith in the coxswain's skill is exemplary, as was such a thin line between success and failure. If at any time they had lost their grip or had been washed overboard their chances of recovery were virtually nil. I have never seen the coxswain and crew so physically and mentally shattered after a service and they really did give of their all.'.