Treacherous mission was just ‘a job’ recalls lifeboat man Wilbert
It is 50 years since Aith lifeboat crew raced to Papa Stour to help a trawler stranded on rocks. Conditions were treacherous, but the brave actions of the lifeboat men ensured all 12 onboard the trawler were rescued. Ryan Taylor catches up with one of the rescuers who answered the call.
Wilbert Clark was 19 when he set off on a daring early morning mission to save the crew of the Juniper.
It was 19th February 1967, and the trawler had run into trouble off Papa Stour in heavy seas.
She was jammed among rocks at the foot of 200 foot high sheer cliffs at Fugla and Lyra Skerries, and the crew were unable to use their life rafts.
The waves were so strong the vessel was being shunted about and she was said to be grinding like a tin-can on the rocks.
Aith’s lifeboat, the John and Francis MacFarlane was launched to assist the Aberdeen trawler and her crew. It was their “superhuman” efforts in the face of the danger that ensured that all 12 of the Juniper’s crew were saved.
Wilbert had never experienced anything like it, even though he had already been involved with the lifeboat for two years by the time the incident took place.
“For a young boy, it was quite an experience to go, because I hadn’t been out on anything dramatic before – just searches for flares and things like that, an occasional run out to Foula, maybe.
“So this was the real shout, as you might call it.”
The call came at 5.15am, when maroons were fired to raise the alarm.
Wilbert, a retired ferry-man for the SIC, describes it as a “bad morning” with southeasterly gales and rain.
“At that time the lifeboat lay off moorings, you went off in a small boat, which sometimes with a bad night maybe wasn’t easy as well.
“It was quite rough but the wind was blowing off shore so it could have been a lot worse if the wind had been coming in off the west or the northwest.”
Sailing with Wilbert were fellow lifeboat men Frank Johnston, Kenny Henry, Jimmy Manson, Jim Tait, Andy Smith and Bill Anderson.
Kenny is the father of current Aith coxswain Hylton Henry. Aith coxswain at the time was the late John Robert Nicolson, who played a pivotal role in orchestrating the rescue.
The weather was so bad that crewman Henry never heard the maroons firing to alert the crew to the emergency. He was eventually alerted by a phone call.
For another crewman, Mr Anderson, it was his first time on a lifeboat. The crew was a man short and he was asked to help out.
Wilbert said it had been a dramatic incident – made all the more nail-biting by the lifeboat’s comparatively slow progress through the wintry conditions.
“There seemed to be a bit of urgency. The mechanic was speaking to the skipper of the trawler on the radio, and he seemed to be pretty anxious and thought maybe the trawler wasn’t going to last for all that long.
The mechanic was speaking to the skipper of the trawler on the radio, and he seemed to be pretty anxious and thought maybe the trawler maybe wasn’t going to last for all that long. – WILBERT CLARK
“It was going to take us about an hour and a half to get there, but at that time the trawlers weren’t very fast – they were going at about nine knots.
“We were kind of anxious if we would get there in time, or would she be gone by the time we got there?”
The lifeboat was going down-wind, but Wilbert says visibility “wasn’t too great”
“By the time we got down there there was a couple of trawlers – maybe more as two – lying off but he couldn’t get in to do anything.”
Those trawlers were, according to the lengthy narrative of an official RNLI report, the Aberdeen trawlers Admiral Hawk and Leawood.
Owing to the weather and skerries, they were “quite unable” to get much within half a mile of the casualty.
Coxswain Nicolson took the “courageous decision” to attempt to take the lifeboat through a very narrow passage of only a few yards in width to get alongside the trawler.
The conditions were so violent that one wave lifted the lifeboat right over the Juniper. “By the time we got down to where the trawler was the daylight was starting to break in, so at least we could start seeing something,” says Wilbert.
“We got everybody on board, which was a great relief, and then some of them were a bit cold, and shocked.”
The report says the trawler’s crew were taken “by a superhuman effort” by lifeboat, and without any injuries, which was remarkable given the heaving and rolling taking place.
“The survivors were in poor shape, wet and exhausted, which together with the movement of the boats and the weather made the rescue a most hazardous task,” the report added.
Despite the sterling effort by all the crew, Wilbert is dismissive of any suggestion they are heroes.
“You don’t think of yourselves as heroes – you’re out to do a job, if you can possibly do it. You certainly don’t think of yourselves as being heroes at all.”
On the way back, the crew of the trawler had the benefit of a warm cabin and tins of hot soup. Back in Aith, they benefited from, according to the report, a “warm room and a good fire” and were able to enjoy “a cup of tea and refreshments”.
Transport was then arranged to take them to the Seamen’s Mission, where they were clothed and cared for.
In the days before advanced safety systems aimed at protecting people at sea, incidents involving vessels were undoubtedly more commonplace than they are today. Wilbert says one of the trawler’s crewmembers had decided there and then – enough was enough.
“If I remember correctly, one of the crew – it was the third time he had been shipwrecked. He said he wasn’t going to sea any more.
“I don’t know if he did or not.
“I think if I was him I would have made the same decision.”
Wilbert never kept in touch with any of the Juniper’s crew. But he recounts a tale from “a few years back” when an Aith man happened to be in Aberdeen. He took a taxi, and the driver – having recognised his accent – asked if he was from Shetland.
“’Yes,’ he said, ‘I come from Aith’.
“’Oh,’ he said, ‘I was rescued by the Aith Lifeboat in 1967 from the Juniper.’
Wilbert shakes his head. “It’s a small world.”
Coxswain Nicolson, who died in 2004, was awarded the Maud Smith Award for the bravest rescue by a
lifeboat during 1967, and the P&O award for bravery.
The rest of the crew received RNLI Thanks of the Institution inscribed on vellum.
Current coxswain Hylton Henry knows the challenges of manning the lifeboat only too well.
“It is phenomenal to think what that crew did in that lifeboat in such conditions,” he said.
The lifeboat mechanic, Mr Johnston, recalled on the 40th anniversary of the rescue: “If you’d stopped to analyse tides and currents and charts you’d never have got in there. We came back up the voe with a great sense of well-being.
“We’d saved the men. I couldn’t believe that we’d done it, that I’d been involved.”
Mr Johnston is the grandfather of current Aith mechanic John Robertson’s wife Kayla. John Robert Nicolson’s nephew, David Nicolson, is on the current crew.
Amazingly, Wilbert, 69, has been involved with the lifeboat for most of his life.
Last year he was given an award in recognition of his 50 year stretch of involvement with the lifeboat.
“I’ve been just over 20 years with the crew. Then I left the crew and got a job with the SIC on
the Papa Stour ferry. But I’ve been on the shore committee since then.”
Wilbert may be impressively modest about his work in helping save the crew, but the subsequent documents tell no lies.
An extract from the lifeboat service record book shows the sea was “very rough” with heavy rain and poor visibility.
The daring mission took more than four hours to complete, and it clearly took its toll on the lifeboat, which sustained a damaged stem at the waterline, as well as damage to her stancheons.
Interestingly, under “items of equipment or stores to replenish” the document lists biscuits and soup, but also cigarettes and two bottles of rum.