Caithness Field Club

Rockets from the North Shore
By Geoff Leet

Think of sea rescue and you rightly think of RNLI lifeboats. The lifeboats are usually called out by full-time Coastguards on radio watch, who also call out teams of volunteer Coastguards for cliff rescue and the search for survivors. We used to fire the great line-throwing-rocket which could blast through any gale to rescue the crew from the ships aground, but this work is now done by helicopters and the rocket used by our team at Scrabster has passed into history; one can be seen at Wick Heritage Museum. We saved perhaps 25 seamen in as many years, occasionally using the great rocket and lives may now be at risk without it.

A uniformed full-time Coastguard from the Wick HQ would periodically instruct us in firing the great 83mm rocket (about a yard of cordite) pulling on 500 yards of 8mm rocket line which would drop over a "wreck", often the old pillbox at Burnside. The "wreck crew" would pull on the rocket line and drag out a pulley to tie to their "mast". The pulley carried an endless loop, 1000 yards long, of thicker "whip" rope which the Coastguards ashore would use to tow a breeches buoy out to the wreck. This is a lifebelt fitted with shorts to prevent the casualty falling through and could be floated to and from the wreck or, for cliff work, dangled from an even thicker rope used as an overhead rail and secured to stakes on the cliff top. These rockets and ropes were heavy and needed about 15 men to carry to the cliff edge.

The original versions of our great rockets could sink submarines without needing explosive warheads, so we took care not to destroy passing shipping and, at times, in order to conserve rockets, did not get to fire them at all.

Some of our instructors felt that, as a full complement of volunteers might not be available on the night, we should all learn all the skills. The next instructor might well demand, "Who is Number 4" and we would look guiltily at the numbered armbands on the hooks and try to remember if Number 4 knew how to test the battery leads or retained the secret of the rolling hitch.

The rocket line is carefully laid in it’s box and should rise smoothly after the rocket. At one practice the box was tipped out on the ground so, on firing, the line attempted to lift a great knot of rope into the sky, which broke into two and the rocket, encumbered only by a short line, flew for half a mile, narrowly missed a cow and sank 6 feet into the ground, still sizzling.

Later small groups were trained in a speciality like, in my case, WHIP, who attached our gear to the shore end of the line provided by the ROCKET group. ANCHOR would establish a solid shore fixture. RADIO would communicate with HQ and the wreck and, at night, illuminate the scene with the searchlight. At real wrecks at least one specialist from each group did turn up so we made few mistakes.


Standardise training in best practice!


A retired Air Force Officer. Wing Commander Mike Hunt, lived in the cuddy of his wee yacht in Scrabster Harbour. When the bar at Scrabster closed one afternoon, after a contretemps about yacht skippers and fishing skippers, he took two fishing skippers out in his yacht to show him them how to sail. One of the fishing skippers unbalanced and fell over the side and could not swim: Mike Hunt flung off his life-jacket, dived in, supported the skipper and shouted to the other skipper to turn the yacht round to pick them up, but the skipper didn’t know how to achieve this. He got the sails down but the yacht was caught in the tide off Dunnet Head and eventually he landed up in Castlehill harbour and raised the alarm. The lifeboat was launched and the Harbour Master asked members of the Yacht Club, who were about to have a race, to disperse around the bay to search for the Wing Commander. The search continued until nightfall. He was a very strong swimmer but no sign could be seen of him. The Coastguards were not called out. Next morning the Wing Commander was found dead on the beach at Dunnet, with no water in his lungs. The body of the drowned skipper was washed ashore a few days later.


Most swimmers do NOT die after 10 minutes in a cold sea and a few keep swimming for days. When they do reach shore they are exhausted and very vulnerable to wind chill. Keep searching.  Get a Helicopter which can spot bodies, alive or dead, which shore watchers and Lifeboat crews can not see because of glare and the rise and fall of the waves.


A Belgian trawler with rope around the prop was being towed by a second trawler through a westerly gale. At Scrabster divers had been alerted to cut away the ropes from the prop. Ships need props as brakes so, to enter harbour, a casualty ship will usually be lashed alongside the functioning ship. In the bay the cold and tired crews of the De Haal and Massabielle from Ostend were lashing the trawlers together.

During gales the Coastguard then employed Coast-Watchers who occupied the wee white huts on the cliff edge. The man at Victoria Walk, between Scrabster and Thurso, saw the two trawlers heading for Thurso, (the chart then marked Thurso River as a harbour) and drifting while having difficulty getting their vessels lashed together. He informed the HQ at Wick. He was told, "Call back in half an hour".

At the HQ all was not well. An officer had been called for promotion interview and forgotten that he had agreed to stand in as Officer-in-charge that night. (He got his promotion). An untrained Coast-Watcher was called in and, as the gale increased, was soon swamped by calls from all over. He called out the Chief, who leapt into his car but soon ran out of fuel, so played no further part that night.

The Watcher at Victoria Walk duly reported to Wick that the two trawlers had been aground at Thurso East for 20 minutes. The Watcher at HQ managed to call out the teams of Auxiliary Coastguards and also two off-duty Officers who dashed to the Landrover which is always ready in the garage just in front of the trailer carrying the gear. They reached Thurso before they remembered that the trailer was not coupled. I leapt into duffel coat and wellies but was surprised to find the Scrabster Rocket Shed in darkness and squinted through the window to see if I was late and the gear gone. The gear was there. Bill Deans then arrived and he drove to the Police Station to get the key.

We had not then been issued with Landrovers and relied on the lorry provided by Highland Buses, so I drove to the garage to speed them up. The bus garage was brightly lit but the emergency driver, "permanently available", was not to be found. Warm tea stood on the table so I shouted and banged on the buses and thought about the Marie Celeste mystery. I managed to find the phone number of the manager who agreed to call out a driver. This seemed to me to lack urgency but the manager would not drive the lorry himself or allow me to drive. Much later the driver appeared, uniformed, freshly shaved, quite unable to understand my urgency. (Later it transpired that the "emergency driver" was observing events from Thurso harbour, unaware that he was a key participant).

We loaded the lorry with the gear, reached the long soggy field in Thurso East, our headlamps sweeping the bogged-down school bus used by the Scarfskerry team, but getting stuck in the mud ourselves before reaching the stuck lorry used by the John O’Groats team. The gale screamed in our faces as we looked over the sea bank. Coastguard searchlights lit up the foaming waves. The wreck scene was made dramatic by a fire on the wing bridge of one trawler. This was an attempt by the crew to draw attention to their plight. As a wave receded the whole keel could be seen resting on the slate and equally often the deck was swept by solid sea, so their alarm was understandable. The other trawler was high and dry. Our parachute flares gave us about 3 seconds of illumination before being blown far inland briefly lighting up the fields and bogged-down lorries.

The Scrabster divers, seeing their job heading for Thurso rocks, were first on the scene by an hour or two and had tensioned one of the ship’s cables so the crew could crawl down the cable hand -over- hand. The crew would not wait for our breeches-buoy so all we could do was to stabilise the shore end of the cable and assist the crew through the surf. The divers clung to the surging cable in the deeper surf and all got ashore uninjured.


1/ Sort out transport: later Scrabster was allocated a Landrover.
2/ Sort out the organisation.
3/ Keep all fuel tanks full, even private cars.


The Coastguard needs time to call out the team, load the gear and find the wreck. Often the Lifeboat races us to the wreck and in the extreme dark between Brims and the Forss river we saw the lifeboat repeatedly raising it’s searchlight skywards, then bringing it down on to the cliff. There, directly below us, lay our quarry, the MV Korall of Gottenburg, loaded with marble chips, driven ashore by the gale under cliffs higher than the masts, so difficult for us to find.

Above the howl of the gale could be heard the grinding of the hull on the rocks. We tied two cliff ladders together and dropped the end to the deck. A brave uniformed man climbed down to the heaving wave-swept deck, tied a line to each crewman in turn and we helped them climb the ladders, each man clutching a suitcase rattling with bottles.

We were hindered by the arrival of a local drunk who would appear on extreme pinnacles to direct operations. We, encumbered with safety lines, had difficulty capturing him and, once released he would reappear, attracted like a moth to the lights.

We had not then been issued with a Coastguard Landrover so when all was finished we hooked our heavy trailer behind Henry Swanson’s long-wheelbase Landrover and set off straight across the bog past two stuck Coastguard Landrovers unencumbered by trailers. "Don’t slow, don’t turn" said Henry as we squelched into the night.

I visited the scene the next day and saw the most of the ship reduced to the keel and a few ribs.


Lifeboats can save lives even after the ship is ashore.

"I SEE A FIRE ENGINE" (22-8-75)
The trawler "Clarkwood" was stuck in a rocky inlet she knew not where, but, by radio, told the Wick Head Quarters it could see a fire engine! The HQ kept this gem to themselves, as HQs always do. Everyone on the team knew that "fire engines" meant Thurso or the power station at Dounreay. Deprived of that information we spread ourselves out along the coast until it occurred to someone to ring 999.

The Clarkwood, relatively undamaged, had bounced into a natural low tide harbour which trapped her but protected her from the violence of the waves. To escape she had to wait until the tide rose and the protection of the rocky wall diminished. As the trawler dodged the waves and the rocks, damage accumulated to propeller and rudder. The less necessary crew came ashore by life raft. The Lifeboat fired its small rockets but could not come close enough to reach the trawler and establish a tow.

A uniformed Coastguard was with us but was unwilling to take charge which inhibited action by us. Ultimately I proposed firing a rocket line to land on both ships. We alerted the two crews, and Ken Butler fired a perfect shot, landing the line on both craft. We still had the shore end of the rocket line which would have been useful if the Clarkwood sank. The crew brought a heavy trawling cable up to deck, tied it to the rocket line and the lifeboat pulled in 100 yards of rocket line before the heavy cable fouled on the sea bottom. and the Clarkwood was doomed.

The crew had omitted to cut the shore section of the rocket line and tie it to their rail so the shore end was also pulled out to sea with the heavy cable. We had to fire another rocket to establish the breeches buoy and take off the rest of the crew.

In retrospect I realise that, much earlier, we should have alerted the skipper to bring his cable up to deck all ready with floats and also to have cut and preserved the shore length of the rocket line.

A dramatic newspaper photograph showed our Brian Hughes up to his chest in foaming water with the rocks and the sinking trawler.. He was actually kneeling, looking for his glasses!


Headquarters should share information.
Uniformed men should take charge or stay away.
Skippers fighting the waves need help with longer term plans.
Coastguard headquarters should examine two recent rescues on the North coast where the short range of the Lifeboat rocket, the lateness of the helicopter and lack of a land-based rocket nearly allowed men to drown.
Perhaps Lifeboats might find room for a long-range rocket on their new fast craft?


RADIO (7-3-78)
The Holborn Head lighthouse near Scrabster Harbour is not near the tip of the Head, so on dark nights ships leaving Scrabster occasionally turn west too soon. One large trawler fresh from the Barents Sea, named the BOSTON-PHANTOM, had collected 40 gallon drums of refrigerant and some refreshments at Scrabster to transfer to the sister ship, the BOSTON-LINCOLN, outside the harbour, probably to save those seamen from the temptations of hard liquor. Night had fallen and during the transfer the BOSTON-LINCOLN drifted on to a rock ledge with a falling tide. The bow was within jumping distance of the Holborn Head cliff. The skipper took a tow from the Lifeboat which lacked adequate towing power, so he requested his consort to return. From the cliff edge we set up our rescue gear and followed the radio exchange: the skipper of the consort appeared to have difficulty standing, speaking or focusing. The skipper aground spoke with resolute clarity, "YOU ARE STILL HALF A MILE OFFSHORE. YOU NEED TO INCREASE YOUR SPEED."

The offshore trawler we came to call the "Boston Strangler" crept towards the shore. After several repeats of the measured request and information about the tow, we heard "I shee no lifeboat". "THE LIFEBOAT HAS A BLINKING BLUE LIGHT ON TOP", "I shee no blinking blue light", followed by a mighty bow wave gleaming white in the darkness as the Strangler surged forward. The Lifeboat chopped the line and fled for safety, so the window of opportunity closed. On the next tide the "Boston Lincoln" floated off with little damage and at the Mission a crewman remarked, "we took Holborn Head a bit neat".


Survive to rescue another day!


Less fortunate were two of the four crew of a Faroese fishing boat which struck Holborn Head, rebounded and had almost reached harbour as she sank, two of the crew soon being rescued.

The night was still, the water oily calm and curtains of mist hovered over the serpentines of cold fresh water which floated on the slightly less cold salt sea. The Lifeboat, the Coastguard and the berthed car ferry St. Ola, all used their searchlights to seek survivors. (We now know that by then both men were dead.)

The Lifeboat had watchers in the bow who were not dazzled by reflections from the mist and their searchlight operator, who must frequently have been dazzled himself, smoothly traversed his lamp so that observers at sea and ashore could use his light.
The Coastguard operator, frustrated because he was dazzled, flashed his light about seeking gaps in the mist, a menace to other observers.


Remember you are part of a team!
I have since heard that the two Faroese survivors died in a later wreck. Fishing is indeed a dangerous livelihood.


In the still dark Thurso caravan park, Sandy Oliphant and I sat in the Landrover watching our breath form a thick crust of ice on the alloy roof and also watching the trawler beached on a rock shelf below.

When the tide was low I walked out, dodging rockpools, taking a rocket line out to the casualty. I picked up a stone and knocked on the steel hull. A sleepy deckhand appeared, took the line and tied it to his rail. Luckily the calm persisted and at dawn they floated off, remembering to untie our line.


Think Ahead!


The trawler’s cook fell sick so Dr Jimmy Deans went out in the harbour launch and, surrounded by the anxious crew, was examining the patent when the trawler struck the rock shelf. The engine failed to pull her off and, as the tide rose, the waves carried her further up the rock, grinding and booming and at one stage heeling 45 degrees. Luckily she was carried into a deeper sea inlet and managed to escape without needing our rocket, which we had been shifting hour by cold hour as the tide rose. We were glad of the soup brought to the beach by my daughter.


A ship’s bridge must never be left unattended at sea.


The Coastguard was not involved in the next two accounts although they occurred 200 yards from the Scrabster Rocket Shed.

My wife was surprised to see a frogman crossing our lawn and asking for buckets. While diving for harbour works at Scrabster he had resurfaced to discover his steel workboat drifting towards the distant shore. He swam after the boat and saw it beach. His efforts to bale using our buckets, were frustrated by waves.

That night great yellow machines bulldozed a ramp up the cliff near the Bishop’s Palace and the workboat was dragged up and returned by road to Scrabster as if nothing had happened. The ramp is still there. We were presented with new buckets.


The yacht race was attended by two guard boats, one fibreglass and one inflatable, each with one man on board. A single-man sailing dinghy capsized close inshore and while being attended by the inflatable, was being observed by Gordon Foyle in the fibreglass boat further out.

A large wave caught the fibreglass boat broadside on and drove it inshore, tipping him out. The same wave also separated the other men from their respective crafts and the three men struggled separately towards the shore and, able to stand briefly in the trough of a wave, acknowledged each other. Only two reached the beach, the two wearing lifejackets. The fibreglass boat, the engine still running, headed back to sea in an arc, running ashore later with life jackets still in the locker. A stone bench near the Rocket Shed commemorates Gordon Foyle.


Wear a lifejacket in small craft and a safety line offshore.


ROYAL SALUTE (August 1990)
After the Queen and the Royal party had visited the Queen Mother at the Castle of Mey, the HMRY Britannia passed through the Pentland Firth. Dozens of Coastguards lined the cliff by the Castle, each with a box of time-expired flares of various kinds. At a signal we were to send up a barrage of one type, then on another signal to fire the next, while the Britannia replied.

The smoke of the first barrage so obscured the scene that we never again saw the signaller let alone the next signal! We merrily fired at random. Almost every one of these ancient flares ignited, some perhaps slower or less brilliant than when new.


Regularly purchase new flares, but keep the old ones as well. If you need one you may need the lot.


A youth was standing on a natural rock diving board shooting, with an airgun at nesting gulls, lost his footing and fell 200 feet. This was not 20 falls of 10 feet, it was a straight fall on to the 45 degree rock scree at the base of the cliff which spun him far out on the exposed flat rock. When we arrived and bounced with our Landrover across the peat hags from The House Of The Northern Gate we looked down and saw other volunteers, who had clambered down a geo, clustering around the body. The rescue helicopter was coming so we stood by. After such a fall I did not conceive that he could be alive. The chopper landed beside the body and transferred the stretcher on board. Much later my daughter pointed out the youth limping down the street.


Assume survival until proved incorrect.

Published in 2000 Bulletin