“We deserved to get away with a few scratches and a bit of embarrassment, not to get the boat sunk” says yacht owner Alex Renton.

A boat owner has learned ‘many lessons’ after his yacht ran aground and then was sunk during a recovery operation on the west coast of Scotland.

Experienced sailor and award-winning journalist Alex Renton says the sinking was the result of a ‘series of screw-ups that day, starting with my grounding her.’

Alex was sailing with two others and a pet dog on the 39ft (12m) yacht – an Ohlson 38 he had owned for 20 years when he ran aground on a falling tide, 200m from the James Watt Dock Marina entrance in Greenock.

Alex Renton on his yacht in happier times

Alex Renton on his yacht in happier times

Alex said: ‘It was bloody annoying to run aground in the Clyde at the end of a quite expensive refit. We were off on a trip back to the boat’s permanent home, near Oban.

‘We were doing just two knots when we struck the end of a reef, the guy on the foredeck didn’t even stumble. It was a beautiful, flat, calm day.’

The trio had never sailed out of that marina before; the yacht had come over in a truck from Port Edgar.

Alex added: ‘I’ve since learned that three yachts have run aground there in the last two years.’

He alerted Belfast Coastguard that they had struck rocks at around 7am on 24 August: ‘We told them there was no risk at all to life.’

Alex Renton's yacht in happier times - anchored in Village Bay, St Kilda

Alex Renton’s yacht in happier times – anchored in Village Bay, St Kilda

Alex and his crew quickly laid the yacht on its side and started getting every sheet of plywood, old oars and fenders underneath.

Some 45 minutes later Helensburgh Lifeboat arrived to assist, by which time the tide was too low for the yacht to be towed straight away. The lifeboat crew assisted with shoring up the yacht with timber sourced from the marina, and escorting Alex and his crew ashore.

PBO reader Alex, who has sailed his beloved yacht to the Canary Islands, Azores, Norway, Spain and around Britain, said at low water his yacht was ‘lying pretty nicely for a long-keeled, heavy boat. I thought everything was fine. That’s when it all went wrong.’

As the tide turned, Water was discovered in the cabin sole and Alex realized that there was a hole in the bow, underneath the water tank or heads – which is where it turned out to be.

Alex reported this to the coastguard and just before 2pm the lifeboat relaunched.

The RNLI crew brought with them a small petrol-fired water pump, which failed to work.

Alex said he and a member of the marina staff said a bigger pump from the marina was needed but the lifeboat crew decided to call the fire brigade.

Alex said: ‘Two fire engines eventually turned up, with blue lights flashing. After much discussion, they said since we weren’t tied up they couldn’t pump us out, so they were going away.

‘Now the water was at alternator height, a serious problem. I hired my own generator and pump, which worked, but by now the gunwales were awash.

‘At high water she was just afloat and the marina work boat towed her. She was 100m from the hoist when she sank, with only the top of her mast visible. There was no structural failure, just a hole that I could only get four fingers into up to my middle knuckles.’

The sunken yacht at Greenock. Credit Craig Scholte

Photo credit: Craig Scholte

Alex said one of the hardest lessons he’s learned is to question at what point do you take control?

‘The RNLI guys were kind and helpful. They said to me as the boat sank: ‘We feel your pain, but our job is saving lives not boats.’

‘I couldn’t help but think, yes but if you’d gone away six hours ago and let us get on with it, it would probably have been fine. They had a defective pump and the delays were disastrous.

‘We refloated my yacht the following day. She had a tiny puncture. It’s already cost £10,000 just to lift her even though she was really close to the marina.

‘I have good insurance, but 24 hours under water does lots of damage. She may be written off.

‘We deserved to get away with a few scratches and a bit of embarrassment, not to get the boat sunk.’

Alex Renton's yacht in happier times - in the Farne Islands

Alex Renton’s yacht in happier times – in the Farne Islands

Please note: Practical Boat Owner magazine has removed a quote from Alex Renton which criticised the marina’s navigation marks for small boats.
James Watt Dock marina would like to make clear that the buoyage for approaching or departing James Watt Dock Marina is clearly marked on all navigational charts and documents and in addition there is a guide to vessel arrivals on the marina’s website using drone footage.

The RNLI report

A spokesman from RNLI Helensburgh said: ‘Belfast Coastguard requested lifeboat launch at 08:01hrs on 24 August after receiving a request for assistance from the owner of a 12 metre yacht that had gone aground on rocks while exiting the James Watt Dock.

‘Once on scene the lifeboat crew quickly ascertained that they could not refloat the vessel due to the ebbing tide and the fact that the yacht was hard aground on rocks.

‘In order to minimise further damage to the vessel some shoring was procured from the marina and a stern anchor deployed. After landing the 3 persons (and dog) on board back to the James Watt Dock, the lifeboat returned to base after agreeing that a workboat from the marina would be in attendance when the vessel refloated.

‘The lifeboat was back on station and reported ready for service again at 10:28hrs.’

RNLI Helensburgh

RNLI Helensburgh

The spokesman added: ‘At 13:59hrs however Belfast Coastguard requested lifeboat launch again as the owner of the grounded yacht, who had returned to it, reported that it was taking in water and the cabin was filling with sea water.

‘Once on scene the lifeboat crew attempted to pump out the water using both the lifeboat’s salvage pump and also one provided by the marina.

‘With the pumps making some progress, as the tide flooded, a workboat from the marina started to stern tow the vessel off the rocks, with the intention of towing it to the boat lift in the James Watt Dock, however having started to tow it, it was clear that the vessel was taking in more water to such an extent that it sank when inside the James Watt Dock; the rocks that the vessel had been sitting on had either been plugging a hole in the hull, which had not been detected earlier, or it had sustained further damage when the yacht was towed off.

‘As there was nothing else that could be done by the lifeboat crew, and with all persons safe, the lifeboat returned to station and reported ready for service again at 17:11hrs.’