Graham Watson tells the story of a dramatic rescue operation, and of the warm hospitality shown to stranded Russian seamen at the height of the Cold War.
Friday 2nd February 1962 was a raw winter’s day. Things went much as normal with the MV Earl of Zetland calling in offshore from Brough Lodge. The flit boat, operated by Billy and Tommy Thomason, left the Brough Pier and transferred goods and mail from the steamer. After unloading they winched the boat up over the beach and left it suitably secured.
Into the late afternoon the weather changed to a significant south-west gale and sleet was falling. There were several Russian trawlers sheltering in Tresta Bay though heavy seas were rolling in.
At this time John Robertson (coast watcher in charge at Fetlar) was aware that the weather was worsening and he telephoned the district officer of the coastguard in Lerwick to ask if they should instigate a bad weather watch, as there were a lot of Russian boats in Tresta Wick. While John Robertson was phoning at about 5.3Opm, an islander came in to tell him he had seen distress rockets being fired. John Robertson called along Tresta to alert David Thomason, another coastguard member, and together they made for the Garths, where the flares had been seen.
Similarly, at the east end of the island, Bobby Coutts was alerted, and he took his tractor with trailer to the coastguard hut to collect the necessary equipment. He also collected Bobby Bruce and Jamesie Laurenson and hastened to the scene. Joe Jamieson, Charlie Thomason, Billy and Tommy Thomason also went. Likewise, Kenny Hughson and Lance Thomason.
The first islander at the scene saw that there was a Russian trawler close in below the Brochs Of Houbie, but this was not the stricken vessel. Another Russian trawler was further in, about 25 yards offshore, banging and grinding against the rocks. It was later established that the two Russian trawlers had been lying side by side, only one of them with an anchor down. The outer trawler had cut itself adrift and, having their engines started, they were able to head seaward and avoid the rocks. The stricken vessel, Maia, had been unable to start its engines before it was swept onto the rocks.
In the meantime, a nearby Russian tug sent a launch to get alongside the Maia and they were able to Rescue 11 men. The launch made a second trip to try and get alongside the stricken ship, but by that time the Maia was well aground and it was too dangerous for the launch to make contact.
At this time John Coutts and Jamie Thomason (both about 11 years old) had been warned to stay away from the rescue scene, so they ran down over the Houbie rigs to the shore line, where they could look across and get a panoramic view so long as the flares and Russian tug searchlights were on.
Bobby Coutts sent a rocket line to the Maia and it missed, but the second one went right across the deck so the Russians received it and the breeches buoy was set up. The lights on the Maia went out as she was partially submerged.
The weather was worsening and the wind was gale force with heavy seas running. In darkness the rescuers had inadequate lighting with torches and lanterns. The ground surface was treacherous and the Fetlar men could not make fast the shoreward end of the breeches buoy. Instead eight men took the strain on the rope, moving backwards and forwards in what was a grim tug of war to bring the men ashore.
The Maia heeled over on her starboard side to an angle of45 degrees and was rolling violently as she hit against the rocks. This made the rescue even more difficult, and there was a fear that the rope might sever. The remaining crew of 12 were taken from the stricken trawler, one by one, and not without difficulty some dooking in the sea on their way to dry land. The rescued men were then conveyed in the tractor to Houbie. Miraculousy no one was badly injured.
At Houbie, the Russian men were allocated to various households to stay for the night. Charlie Thomason and family took the captain and another seaman. Martha Henderson’s house (“Houbie two”) was shared with Joan Coutts and John Coutts. Martha was at the door of the house when Bobby Coutts shouted from the tractor, “Hey Mattie. Does du want a couple of Russians?” Martha agreed, so the cook and first mate were allocated there. They could not speak any English so communication was difficult. She obtained a change of clothing for the men then fired up the Rayburn and hung their wet clothes on the raepe above the fire. The first mate hung their flankers upside down and tied them up to the laft. Joan elected to go to the shop as she didn’t want to be alone with the foreign seamen. She went for more foodstuffs.
At “Houbie three”, Gord, the general store, John Hughson and family took in four Russians. A further two were dropped off at Leagarth, occupied by Kenny and Mimie Hughson. One (the radio operator) was kept at Setter, occupied by Billy Thomason and family, and the remaining one was kept at Velzie, occupied by Tommy Thomason and family.
Meantime back at “Houbie two”, they all sat down and ate the meal that Martha and Joan had prepared. They were indicating and questioning as to how far their trawler was to the shore. Martha and John Coutts tried to interpret what they were saying. John showed them picture comics which he had, and they seemed to enjoy them. One was the Beano, and the story was about the adventures of Jonah, who always managed to sink a ship. The two Russians laughed at this – although they could not read the words they understood the pictures. The first mate admired Joan doing her Fair Isle knitting and tried to tell them that his mother did similar back in the Ukraine.
When bed time came and the “Tilley” lamp faltered, Martha decided that she, Joan and John would sleep in the same room at the back of the house for security. The Russians were to sleep in the back room nearer to the “but” room. After they had retired, the occupants of the back room were aware of a torch light shining under their door and they heard the men whispering. The women felt their hearts pounding with fear and at that point thought they had made a mistake taking the men in. The two men stepped over the threshold, shone their torch light on the beds, and then retreated. Martha thought afterwards that they were just checking their hosts hadn’t given up their beds for them.
All went well until morning, when the captain came across to tell the men to get ready to leave. The wind had dropped a lot and it appeared that a Russian launch was coming to the Houbie pier to collect the men. Charlie Thomason found the Russian captain standing outside their house staring down at the remains of his ship. He said he was finished, and would not be allowed to get command of another ship. He even suggested it would be the Siberian salt mines for him, and he was quite distressed. He said the Maia was an old ship, but he was sad that he had lost her.
A launch sent from the parent ship Ivan Federov arrived at the Houbie pier, by which time all the men had been gathered together ready to depart. When an official from the launch saw them he ordered that they were to leave their borrowed clothes behind and change into their own damp gear. They marched up to the “steamer store” at the head of the pier and changed there.
Before they left, the captain left his watch as a token of his gratitude to Charlie Thomason; similarly, a crew man left his watch to John Hughson’s son, Stanley, who was eight years old. Before leaving on the launch, the captain came up to the six or seven bairns at the top of the pier and gave them all a Russian coin. John Coutts says be bored a hole in his and wore it round his neck on a chain for “luck”. He is not sure if it worked.
Even prior to the rescue of the Maia, Fetlar men were accustomed to going off to the Russian trawlers and trading with them, taking off fresh milk, butter, eggs and cigarettes. The Russians were really keen on British cigarettes like Players, Capstan, Senior Service, and Woodbine, and would trade about 100 of their cigarettes for a 20 packet of British. They also gave wooden barrels, fish, items of clothing, like hats and belts. This friendship was well established, despite the “cold war”, and if anything it increased after the rescue of the Russian seamen.
Later that year, on the 22nd June, 1962, RNLI/coastguard officials Commander J. Lawty, Commander J. Woolcombe and D.D W.H. Newcombe attended a dinner at Fetlar Hall, Leagarth, where they presented the Ministry of Transport Shield for the best wreck service of the year. Of all the rescues in Britain that year, Fetlar was deemed to be the best, and it was great credit to the men of the auxiliary coastguard. The strength and resilience of these men was commended. All of the croft houses where the Russians stayed also received a letter of thanks from the Russian Embassy in London.
In 1979, Fetlar auxiliary coastguard were awarded a second shield for the rescue of the MV Sealgair. But that’s another story.
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Graham Watson is a former resident of Fetlar. He is indebted to Joe Jamieson, Kenneth Hughson, Billy Thomason, David Thomason, John Coutts and Jamie Thomason for their help in researching this article.