Rescue against the clock Drifting closer to a rocky shore minute by minute, the yacht Headstrong needed help to survive the night. But would the Plymouth lifeboat reach them in time?Hampered by fishing gear around her propeller, Headstrong was in dire straits, 7 miles from Plymouth lifeboat station. The conditions were against the crew of four, with SE force 8-9 winds, very rough sea conditions and poor visibility, The Arun class lifeboat City of Plymouth launched at 6.12pm on 21 May 2002.
Initially the crew thought it would be a straightforward shout. Second Coxswain Sean Marshall recalled: 'We plotted our course and, although the weather was bad, at first it didn't appear to be a lifethreatening situation.' However, the yacht was not actually at the reported coordinates. A problem with the radar meant that the lifeboat could not pinpoint the yacht's position. Luckily, a crew member spotted the yacht and the City of Plymouth reached scene just over half an hour after launching.
They soon realised, to their dismay, that the situation was more serious than first thought. Sean commented: 'When we saw where the yacht actually was, it put a whole new spin on things.' Stern to sea, with regular breaking waves entering her cockpit area, the yacht was slowly drifting towards a rocky shore. With the radar not working properly, Coxswain Dave Mitford judged that they were about 750m away. Luckily, the fishing gear that had caused the problem in the first place was now slowing down the deadly drift to shore. Dave reflected: 'Talk about pulling six numbers! The yacht got its prop tangled in fishing gear - the chances of that are rare anyway but to be drifting towards the rocks and to be saved by this going around the prop is unbelievable. It slowed their drift rate down and if that hadn't happened - they would have been on the rocks long before we got there.' The crew could see two members of the yacht crew huddled in the cockpit. As time was against them, Dave decided to place a lifeboatman on board to establish a tow.
Second Coxswain Sean Marshall, aged 29, volunteered for the job.
Simply getting close enough to the yacht for Sean to jump was not easy, with a 6-7m swell. On the first attempt, Dave positioned the lifeboat within leaping range for Sean, who used his judgement on when to jump. He landed safely and the lifeboat quickly moved away to prevent a collision.
Now on board the yacht, Sean assessed the two people in the cockpit and judged that they would be unable to help accept the tow or be evacuated. He took charge of the situation and moved them down to the cabin to join the other two.
Meanwhile, Dave was increasingly concerned that Headstrong was getting too close to the lee shore. It was imperative to secure the tow line immediately.
The lifeboat quickly approached and the tow line was thrown to Sean, who secured it to the foredeck of the yacht. Now less than 400m from shore, the seas were beginning to break. Dave was concerned that entangled fishing gear would damage the propeller shaft during the tow, leading to flooding. Attempts by Sean to free the propeller shaft by removing the floating remains of the fishing gear with a boathook were unsuccessful. With conditions worsening, there was no time to put another crew member on board to help Sean. So with both lifeboat and casualty facing into sea, David used a short tow of 9m to pull the yacht gently half a mile off shore, out of immediate danger.
Just when they thought they were making progress, they heard a loud noise below the vessel. They feared it was the fishing gear damaging the propeller shaft.
David remembers the moment: 'I was concerned about the fishing gear around the prop. If I'd pulled the prop shaft out when towing the yacht, water would have bucketed in.'As he couldn't find any problems, Sean was happy to conclude that the noise had probably been the entangled fishing gear breaking away.
To avoid dangers at the eastern entrance to Plymouth breakwater, David towed Headstrong further to the western entrance to Plymouth Sound. At 3-4 knots in rough conditions it was tough going for all the crew. Sean was steering the yacht, with the sea breaking over the stern. With remarkable endurance in these conditions, Sean was at the helm for "P/j hours.
Sean also monitored the condition ofthe crew, who started to feel better once inside Plymouth Sound. They all reached the safety of theTorpoint Ferry area and the City of Plymouth returned to the station after a three-hour service. After the rescue Sean said: 'Everyone was on a high. It was a good job - the outcome was great and it had gone like clockwork.1 'It was one that I will always remember because there were a combination of factors that could have made the outcome very grave.' Sean Marshall David Milford was awarded the Thanks of the Institution on Vellum for his role in the rescue, in recognition of his skills in leadership, boathandling, and his swift thinking and actions. Sean received a bronze medal for his bravery, skill and endurance.
He modestly stresses that it was a team effort: 'I was delighted when they announced the award but it really is testament to the whole station.' The award to Sean Marshall is the first medal at Plymouth station for 25 years.
Sean was only a young boy when the previous medals were awarded, but he knows one of the heroes well. By being presented with the bronze medal, he is following in the footsteps of his very own father, Pat Marshall, who was awarded a bronze medal in 1978.THE LIFEBOAT Arun class lifeboat ON-1136 City of Plymouth Funding: The citizens of Plymouth together with other gifts and legacies THE CREW Coxswain Dave Milford Crew members Sean Marshall Dave Ellis Sean O'Kane Christopher Cook Andrew Thompson Jonathan West PLYMOUTH LIFEBOAT STATION Established: 1824 Previous RNLI medals: 15 silver and 5 bronze THE CASUALTY Crew of four on the Dana 34 yacht Headstrong THE CONDITIONS Weather Rain Visibility: Poor Wind: Force 9 Sea state: Rough.