Royal Navy saves 7 and dog in cliff-face rescue

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Seven people were rescued from treacherous cliffs by a Royal Navy helicopter on 20 April when their boat capsized in the seas off Staffa in the Inner Hebrides.

When the sightseeing boat capsized, all those onboard managed to swim to the safety of a rock at the entrance to a cave, adjacent to the famous Fingal’s Cave, but were then stranded on a narrow shelf with sheer 130ft (40m) cliffs behind them and a rising tide in front of them.

The emergency call from Clyde Coastguard to the duty crew at HMS Gannet in Prestwick Ayrshire, was received at 1627hrs and the helicopter was airborne at 1635hrs.

Arriving on scene at 1712hrs, the crew instantly located the stricken people and realised that the rescue not only had to be a rapid one due to the incoming tide, but was also going to be quite hazardous.

Six of the seven people had made it to a small rock on one side of the entrance, another clambered out on the rocks at the opposite side of the cave.

Those rescued were four adults and three teenagers, as well as a pet collie-type dog named Jess. Two of the adults were crew members of a pleasure boat chartered for the day by the two remaining adults, out on a sightseeing day to the famous island. The teenagers were part of the sightseeing party.

It quickly became clear that the rescues would have to be conducted on a long winch line - some 150ft (46m) - in order for the helicopter to remain clear of the cliffs.

Rescued sightseers are winched aboard HMS Gannet's Sea King helicopter from the rocks below
Rescued sightseers are winched aboard HMS Gannet's Sea King helicopter from the rocks below [Picture: Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

In addition, the narrow nature of the rock shelf meant that the aircrewman on the winch was going to have to operate right up against the cliff face:

Although the weather in this instance was actually quite good, the other hazards involved were significant,” explained Lieutenant Commander Dave Reese, observer and aircraft commander during the rescue.

The pilot, Lieutenant Mark ‘Willow’ Wielopolski, had to ensure he maintained a very steady hover throughout the half hour it took to winch all those stranded to safety.

And our duty aircrewman and paramedic, Petty Officer Marcus ‘Wiggy’ Wigfull, knew he had to achieve a careful balance of multiple winches, recovering the people rapidly, but safely, on a long wire with a solid face of rock behind throughout.

We spotted the people rapidly and were then surprised to see that there was also a dog with them to take care of.

We are just delighted and proud to have been able to carry out this rescue swiftly and with a full positive result all round.

PO Wigfull descended to the shelf and immediately double stropped the two youngest teenagers, sending them up first. The line was then returned with a child strop for the dog and aircrewman to ascend to the helicopter.

PO Wigfull then winched down again and double stropped a further two members of the party awaiting rescue, before repeating the process for the final two.

During the rescue, the RNLI’s Tobermory lifeboat had arrived on scene, though the downwash from the helicopter prevented them being able to get in close enough.

The final crew member was plucked from the other side of the cave entrance.

Both crew members of the pleasure craft insisted on remaining on Staffa - the capsized boat was a dinghy tender from their bigger boat, which they were using to get close to the caves - as they wished to be able to sail back to port. The helicopter set them down on the top of the island and the Tobermory lifeboat crew then took over their care.

All five tourists and the dog were recovered to Lorne and the Isles Hospital in Oban, where the helicopter touched down at 1812hrs. Even dog Jess was given a blanket to keep her warm during the flight to hospital.

Although shocked and cold, the rescued sightseers had only suffered minor cuts during their dramatic scramble from the water.