The drama unfolded after the 82-metre MV (Motor Vessel) Carrier, registered in Antigua and Barbuda, struck rocks in the grip of a Force 9 gale at approx 2020hrs British Summer Time (BST).
The ship was aground close to Raynes Jetty at Llanddulas near Colwyn Bay and two lifeboats were dispatched to assist in a rescue.
Already in the air after a previous call out, the duty crew of HMS Gannet’s Sea King Mark 5 helicopter, from Prestwick, in Ayrshire, were diverted to the incident - refuelling at RAF Valley before arriving on scene at approximately 2150hrs BST.
It had initially been intended to winch the crew members clear and deliver them to a safe landing site at North Wales Police Headquarters in nearby Colwyn Bay, but HMS Gannet’s crew had reported what they thought was a small fire on board the vessel - this later turned out not to be the case.
With the risk of fire, the precaution was taken to close the adjacent A55 to allow the helicopter to rapidly winch and then land on the road to disembark those rescued as quickly as possible.
Five of the MV Carrier’s crew were each lifted in a separate winch - but the final winch caught on a light on the ship. Although this was cleared, the winch was damaged and HMS Gannet diverted to RAF Valley to have it repaired - leaving two crew members and a Royal Navy aircrewman on board.
Shortly after, at approximately 0035hrs BST, the duty aircraft from RAF Leconfield from just north of Hull arrived at the North Wales bay and successfully rescued the remaining ship’s crew and the Royal Navy Winchman, completing just before 0100hrs BST.
Both helicopter crews had to negotiate significantly adverse conditions in transit to the scene and during the rescues, particularly RAF Leconfield with a slow and difficult cross country transit in snowy conditions, flying low to use both roads and railways for visual reference.
Conditions were extremely challenging,” explained HMS Gannet’s duty observer, Lieutenant Angela Lewis.
Sea spray from the waves was being whipped up to a height of about 60ft in places and we were in the hover at about 80-feet [24 metres], so it was quite nerve-wracking.
We put Petty Officer Mike ‘H’ Henson down on the deck of the vessel and he then quickly packaged the first four members of the crew in separate winches.
We dropped them off on the A55 to a waiting ambulance and returned for the remaining three crew and our winchman. Unfortunately, we were only able to complete one lift on this second run before the winch was damaged.
The RAF Sea King crew from Leconfield was scrambled to North Wales immediately after they had delivered a seaman, injured in another incident, to Hull Royal Infirmary at around 2145hrs BST.
The weather over the Pennines was extremely poor.
Aircraft captain Flight Lieutenant Greg Lings said:
With low cloud, snow and the icing level we couldn’t fly over the bad weather so we were forced to literally hover-taxi for over an hour with only 500m visibility over the M62 from Goole to Manchester.
Flight Lieutenant Chris Palgrave did an amazing job getting us to the scene and Sergeant Jim Bethell recovered the stranded RN winchman and the remaining two crew members to the aircraft.
Exchange Royal Navy co-pilot, Lieutenant James Bullock, who flew the Sea King during the rescue, said:
Firstly we had to locate the boat in poor visibility due to the snow.
We found it pinned against the embankment of the A55 by the high winds which made the recovery of the remaining crewmen more difficult because of the angle we had to hover at due the turbulent and bumpy conditions.
The RAF Sea King landed on the A55 to hand over the ship’s crewmen to waiting ambulances before recovering to RAF Valley to spend the night.
For the HMS Gannet crew, it was Petty Officer Mike ‘H’ Henson’s first shift as a qualified search and rescue aircrewman having transferred from Merlin helicopter duties. In total he rescued 14 people yesterday - nine in a previous call out to hill-walkers lost on Ben Macdui, the UK’s second highest mountain, in the Cairngorm Range.
A total of 14 people were rescued by this duty HMS Gannet crew in the course of three call-outs yesterday (nine on Ben Macdui and five from a ship in North Wales).
RAF Search and Rescue performed five rescues, assisting six people over the same period.
The rescue operation, which also included two lifeboats, was co-ordinated by Holyhead Coastguard.