Gripping blow-by-blow account of January's rescue in Force 9 conditions

The Coxswain of the Torbay RNLI lifeboat, Mark Criddle, is to be honoured by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution as the charity awards him the Silver Medal for Gallantry, recognising him for his leadership and outstanding seamanship during the rescue of eight seamen from the stricken merchant vessel Ice Prince on the night of 13 January 2008.

Coxswain Criddle’s volunteer crew on that night – Deputy Second Coxswain Roger Good, Deputy Second Coxswain John Ashford, Mechanic Mathew Tyler, Second Mechanic Nigel Coulton and Crew Members Darryll Farley and Alex Rowe – have also be recognised for their bravery and will each receive the Thanks of the Institution inscribed on Vellum.

The 6,395 gross tonne vessel Ice Prince with 20 crew on board was on passage 34 miles south east of Berry Head, Devon when severe gale force 9 winds and rough seas shifted its cargo of timber causing the vessel to list 25 degrees to port.

Brixham Coastguard coordinated the rescue, requesting RNLI lifeboats from Torbay and Salcombe to launch along with the Coastguard rescue helicopter. The Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland was at anchor in Torbay and offered to travel to the scene to take up position near the cargo vessel to provide shelter from the weather for the rescuers.

8.17pmThe Ice Prince reported an increase list – now 45 degrees – and had lost all power. The lifeboat and helicopter crews had every reason to think that the vessel could founder, and so RNLI’s Torbay lifeboat increased its speed to 20 knots even though at times this resulted in the lifeboat clearing the water.

9pmThe helicopter arrived on scene and began to winch off non-essential crew from the Ice Prince. Torbay lifeboat was unable to communicate with the helicopter or the stricken vessel, however Coxswain Criddle positioned the lifeboat so that he could assist the rescue efforts by illuminating the scene by searchlight.

The pilot used tremendous skill to position and hold the helicopter steady for winching operations due to the list of the cargo vessel. While airlifting the 12 men three hi-lines winch cables broke, each time being replaced. On two occasions the RNLI lifeboat crew was certain that the helicopter would actually hit the ship.

The RNLI will present to Captain Kevin Balls and the crew of the Coastguard rescue helicopter India Juliet the Thanks of the Institution inscribed on Vellum, as a tribute to their courage and determination during the rescue.

9.30pmThe RNLI’s Salcombe lifeboat arrived on scene and also helped to illuminate the vessel as winching continued. The helicopter left the scene at 10pm with 12 rescued crewmen on board. Both Coxswains could see that there were still crewmen on board.

10.10pmCoxswain Criddle contacted the Master of the Ice Prince, who said he and the remaining crew were preparing to abandon ship. Coxswain Criddle quickly briefed his crew, who took up their positions, and carried out several trial runs alongside the Ice Prince, as there was serious danger of collision due to its precarious position and the extremely rough sea conditions. The Coxswain of Salcombe RNLI lifeboat was asked to stand by in case any of the eight crew, who would have to be coaxed to cross the steeply sloping deck to leap onto the lifeboat, slipped into the sea.

More than 50 approaches
With the noise of the sea and wind limiting communications to hand signals, and with the rolling motion and sideways drift of the vessel combined with the broken water around her stern, there was only a limited area for the lifeboat to get alongside the Ice Prince. So the crew of the Torbay lifeboat set about the first of over 50 approaches to rescue the eight crewmen.

Several attempts were needed to rescue each crewman, each time the lifeboat and crew were at risk from the submerged superstructure of the vessel, the severe rolling motion of the vessel and the unstable cargo. Also, if Coxswain Criddle overshot the approach there was a real danger of the vessel’s starboard quarter smashing down on to the lifeboat’s bow where the crew were positioned.

Man overboard
With the first three rescued, the fourth was in position when the Torbay lifeboat rolled unpredictably and the two vessels collided. The man ended up under water, at which point the Salcombe RNLI lifeboat began to manoeuvre into a position to rescue him. However, he managed to clamber along the submerged section of the ship and get back to his colleagues; he was then able to get onto the Torbay lifeboat on the next approach.

The Torbay crew had been thrown onto the deck of the lifeboat, but quickly got back into position to continue rescuing the remaining Ice Prince crew, all of whom now needed much persuading to attempt the transfer. During one of the attempts, one crewman’s jump was short and he came close to being caught between the two vessels. However the Torbay’s foredeck crew grabbed him and hauled him on board.

The remaining crewmen were rescued, but each time the lifeboat crew had to lean forward to catch them, risking being struck by the starboard quarter of the Ice Prince.

Rescuing the eight men had taken one and three quarter hours of constant manoeuvring in close proximity to a listing, rolling, powerless, cargo ship at night in atrocious conditions.

Chief Executive’s Letter of Thanks
Salcombe RNLI lifeboat Coxswain Marco Brimacombe along with his crew on board that night – Second Mechanic Richard Whitfield and Crew Members Andrew Arthur, Simon Cater, James Fern and Josh Dornom – will receive collectively the RNLI Chief Executive’s Letter of Thanks for their part in this long and arduous lifesaving service.

RNLI Divisional Inspector, Simon Pryce says: ‘Coxswain Criddle showed great leadership and direction during the rescue operation when he and his crew saved the lives of eight men in perilous conditions – conditions that were severe enough to cripple a 6,395 gross tonne ship. The crew were well aware of the dangers they faced, but recognised that the eight crew of the Ice Prince were in a life-threatening situation. The actions taken by the Coxswain and lifeboat crew were done under the absolute belief that the Ice Prince could capsize and sink at any moment.
‘The crew of the lifeboat showed tremendous bravery, tenacity and strength, acting as a well-trained, efficient team.

‘Coxswain Criddle’s boat handling skills were put to the test during the rescue – even though he pushed the lifeboat to its limits and made over 50 runs alongside the stricken vessel in severe sea conditions, the lifeboat under his command sustained only minimal damage.’

‘Others involved with the rescue on the night – the Coastguard and helicopter crew, HMS Cumberland and the RNLI’s Salcombe lifeboat all acted in the best traditions of lifesaving at sea – they can all be proud of a job well done.’