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Four sailors have been plucked to safety from a fishing boat on fire in the Firth of Clyde by a Royal Navy search and rescue helicopter.
A mayday call went into Belfast Coastguard at approximately 3:05pm yesterday, Wednesday 16 January, and an aircraft from HMS Gannet in Prestwick had been tasked to the emergency at 3:08pm. The helicopter was airborne just 6 minutes later.
The fishing vessel, the Amy Harris 3 from Campbeltown, had reported it was on fire some 3 miles south of Kilmory on the Isle of Arran.
In fading light, but moderate weather conditions, the Mark 5 Sea King was able to speed to the scene from its Ayrshire base, arriving at 3:25pm.
It was clear to the search and rescue team that the fire was in the wheelhouse of the ship and it looked like it had spread. Although the helicopter crew could not see any flames, there was a significant amount of smoke to contend with.
The fishing crew was preparing to abandon ship and take to the water in their life raft, but the rapid response by the HMS Gannet helicopter meant that, when it arrived on scene, all 4 sailors were still on the forward deck of the burning boat.
However, quite a rough sea state meant that the boat itself was pitching around significantly in the water, making the winch transfer tricky.
The two pilots had no visual references to work with, so the flying of the aircraft was temporarily handed over to the crew’s observer [navigator], Lieutenant Commander Andy Drodge, who was able to manoeuvre the aircraft into position using better sight lines from the aircraft’s cargo door, before handing control back to the pilots to maintain a hover over the burning boat.
Lieutenant Commander Drodge, who is also HMS Gannet’s commanding officer, explained:
We arrived on scene very quickly. Because the sea was quite rough, it immediately made the rescue more difficult.
Our winchman Petty Officer Taff Ashman was lowered onto the bow of the boat beside the fishermen where he was able to deploy a hi-line for us - this is a piece of rope which is attached to the winch wire to pull it across to the boat, meaning that the helicopter does not have to hover directly overhead, which can cause increased turbulence.
Since the boat was rocking around quite a lot already, and also bearing in mind that we were trying to minimise blowing the smoke around, this was the best way to handle the situation.
Once Taff was on the deck we elected to winch the crew members off two-at-a-time, with Taff remaining on the burning boat throughout to operate the hi-line.
With all 4 sailors on board, Taff left our hi-line on the fishing boat and we positioned the helicopter above the deck to winch him clear.
The whole rescue was conducted with speed and accuracy and was completed by 3:47pm, just 22 minutes after arriving at the stricken vessel.
All 4 of the sailors on board the fishing boat were uninjured and were transferred to Campbeltown Airport.