A heroic helicopter winchman was forced to cling to a stricken trawler as waves crashed over him during the rescue of 14 crew in gale-force winds yesterday.
Phil Warrington was one of four coastguard rescuers who saved the Spanish fishermen after their vessel ran aground against cliffs at St Kilda.
Waves crashed over him as he was lowered to the deck from the Stornoway Coastguard Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, piloted by captain Liz Forsyth, during a snowstorm.
At times the chopper was just yards from the cliffs.
Mr Warrington said: “Liz did an excellent job. I was wedged in against fish boxes with my arm around the railings. It was not a stable platform to work on.
“The stern of the boat was moving in the sea.”
Last night there were fears that oil could spill from the abandoned trawler. The National Trust for Scotland owns wildlife-rich St Kilda.
The trawler, Spinningdale, which fishes from Fleetwood in Lancashire, hit cliffs early yesterday during gale-force winds and high seas.
But the “hellish conditions” left her crew unable to launch the liferafts.
Stornoway Coastguard helicopter pilot Mrs Forsyth – the only female helicopter captain in UK civilian search and rescue – said her team battled “extreme turbulence” to rescue the fishermen.
Four were later treated in hospital for hypothermia.
The chopper arrived at the scene at 7.15am but conditions were so bad the rescue was delayed until 8.30am.
Mrs Forsyth said: “The snow and the severe gales just made it impossible for us to get into position in darkness. So we waited for first light and managed to sneak into position around the severe turbulence.
“The winchman had difficulty because waves were going right over his head. He’s covered in bruises now.
“The winch operator had to keep telling the winchman when a wave was coming.”
She added: “There was one of the crew on deck. He had been setting off emergency flares so we could locate the boat in the darkness.
“The rest of the crew were inside sheltering with their lifejackets on. Luckily there weren’t any serious injuries. Four of them were suffering from the cold.”
Stornoway Coastguard continued communications with the Spinningdale through another nearby Spanish-crewed vessel, Celtic Sea. The boat also assisted throughout the operation.
A helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth was put on standby but was not needed.
Stornoway lifeboat was also launched and battled what crews described as “the worst storm of 2008”.
The RNLI said the crew faced winds measuring storm force 10 at St Kilda, with a deteriorating forecast to violent storm force 11.
The Marine Accident Investigation Branch launched an inquiry into the incident.
St Kilda, the most remote part of the British Isles, lies 44 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides.
Ian McLuskie, search and rescue manager with CHC, which provides the helicopter search-and-rescue service for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, described it as their biggest challenge to date.
He said: “The rescue was performed in extreme weather conditions at a very hazardous location. Its success is testimony to the skills and courage of the crew, the close co-ordination throughout with other emergency services, and the technological capabilities of the aircraft.”
The National Trust for Scotland plans to send two specialist staff to St Kilda on Tuesday. It is focusing on the environmental implications for the largest of the four islands, Hirta, and set rat traps yesterday in case rodents have escaped from the grounded trawler. Abbie Patterson, the trust’s national species recovery officer, said: ” If any rats aboard the vessel get ashore as they could put the seabird colony at risk by eating eggs and chicks. We can’t be complacent about this as rats can cause huge problems by decimating seabird colonies.”
Last night the fishing boat crew were recovering in the Caladh Hotel in Stornoway.
One fishermen, Christino Andre, said: “It was very frightening. I was asleep in my bunk when the captain came in shouting ‘Come on, come on, come on’. The captain radioed a mayday.”
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