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40th anniversary of passengers’ rescue marked

Ernest Tom Neathercoat

The brave 11-hour rescue of cargo ship passengers in violent seas and stormy weather, which featured distress flares, has been remembered 40 years on.

Wells RNLI Lifeboat held a buffet evening to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the sliver medal service to the Savinesti, a Romanian cargo ship with 28 people on board.

Retired Coxswain David Cox, 92, was the guest of honour and gave a talk, vividly describing the events of 15 February 1979 to current and past volunteer crew, families, guild members and supporters.

The Savinesti was reported in distress approximately 12 miles off Wells by the Race Bank. She had engine failure and was dragging her anchor. The bigger lifeboats at Cromer and the Humber were unable to launch immediately.

Wells lifeboat was requested to launch and locate the casualty until larger boats and a tug arrived on scene.

The morning was heavily overcast with continuous snow blizzards and poor visibility, while the wind was north-easterly strong gale force 9 to storm force 10.

The 37ft Oakley lifeboat Ernest Tom Neathercoat set out to sea and was confronted by heavy rolling seas and the full force of the wind and lost her radar, MF radio and echo sounder.

Coxswain David Cox realised that the lifeboat was labouring to clear the water that she was shipping and had to reduce speed.

The Wells lifeboat located the casualty vessel just north of South Race Buoy. The wind was now was north-easterly storm to violent storm, force 10 to 11. There were 40ft breaking waves, heavy snow and blown spray, with visibility at times down to nil.

Meanwhile the tug Lady Moira and Humber lifeboat were on their way to help. With the Humber lifeboat was only seven miles away, the Wells lifeboat was released to try to make the Norfolk coast in daylight. By now the wind was east north east, violent storm force 11 gusting to hurricane force 12.

'It was soon found that the only course she could sustain without violent movement was south west and she was held down to about half speed. The snow was now blowing directly into the after cockpit and it was one crew member’s task to keep the screen and compass glass clear.

“At 6:15pm some shore lights, thought to be Brancaster, were glimpsed. A parachute flare was put up and an auxiliary coastguard ashore confirmed the lifeboat’s position as being just north of Brancaster Golf Club. An easterly course was then set for Wells harbour. The remaining seven miles took two hours.”

The lifeboat finally berthed in the harbour at 9:50pm. The crew were helped ashore with most unable to walk.

“In all, Ernest Tom Neathercoat, an open 37ft lifeboat, was at sea for 11 hours 24 minutes in violent storm conditions with very heavy swell and phenomenal seas frequently washing right over her, with a continuous blizzard (Wells was cut off by snow for the following three days), poor visibility and sub-zero temperatures.”

For this service the RNLI silver medal was awarded to the crew.

Click here for the full extract from the Lifeboat – the Journal of the RNLI.

Mar 12, 2019