With less than two months to go before I head out to Canada with Phil Kneen, I have been casting my mind back to our last collaboration together. The Harvest project occupied our thoughts for some nine months on and off and the finished result is something that I am still immensely proud of. At the time I wrote a piece about the project and, whilst I realise that it is a little out of date now, I still think it worth a second airing, if only to give Canada some idea as to what it is in for!…
We sat in the bar of the Steampacket Inn on the Isle of Whithorn, contemplating death and gazing out across a tranquil harbour bathed in late December sunshine. The scene before us had probably changed little over the past ten years. That same, somnolent setting would have been the last view of home that the crew of the Solway Harvester had seen as they sailed out to meet their fate on that still January night.
It was in the early hours of the 10 January 2000 when the scallop dredger Solway Harvester slipped her moorings and pointed her bow south, heading out towards the rich fishing grounds lying off the coast of the Isle of Man. There was little to indicate what lay in wait for them out there that night and the crisp winter air foretold nothing of the horrors that lay ahead. For the families of the seven men on board though, it was to be the last time they would ever see them alive.
Over the next 24 hours the weather in the Irish Sea began to deteriorate, as the water around the boat turned from a dark foreboding mass into a screaming cauldron that threatened to engulf them. Eventually conditions became so bad that the boat’s skipper, Craig Mills, decided the time had come to head for shelter and so, on the afternoon of the 11 January, the crew hauled in their gear and the Solway Harvester headed for the safe haven of Ramsey Bay. It was the last journey they would ever make. At 17.47 a polar orbiting satellite picked up the signal from the boat’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), confirming that the vessel had finally lost its battle with the growing storm and battering waves.
The ensuing search for the missing boat pitted man and machine against the unrelenting fury of the Irish Sea. Over the next few hours Mother Nature’s unbridled power held sway in spite of the best efforts of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the RAF and the Royal Navy. Douglas, Ramsey, Port St Mary and Peel lifeboats all launched into the foaming maelstrom and even the Isle of Man ferry, the Ben-my-Chree, was diverted from its scheduled sailing to help in the search. All to no avail. In spite of an exhaustive search the boat and her seven man crew failed to materialise and the rescue effort was finally abandoned at dusk on the evening of the 12 January, after the discovery of two unopened life-rafts had shattered any last vestiges of hope that the crew would be found alive.
It took three more days to locate the Solway Harvester, but she was eventually found lying like some slumbering leviathan 11 miles off the coast of Douglas. The Royal Navy minesweeper, HMS Sandown, seconded from operational duties to help in the search for the boat, sent down a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and, as it became evident that they had found the final resting place of the boat, the mood aboard the naval vessel changed dramatically. Her captain, Ben Key, remembers vividly the silence that descended on the Operations Room as the trawler came into view. As the name Solway Harvester emerged from the enveloping gloom they were all struck by how a vessel that had been so alive and animated just a few days before could now be so silent and still. From the time of the last known communication from the boat, to the time that the EPIRB had been activated, just 18 minutes had passed. Most of the crew hadn’t even had time to get on deck.
The idea to do something to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the sinking had begun as a conversation between myself and Phil some four months previously. Sat in another pub, on another isle, the Harvest project had been born; conceived originally as a way of paying tribute not only to the crew of the Solway Harvester, but also to the incredible efforts made by the Isle of Man to find and then raise her. Over the intervening weeks though what had started as a flickering light somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds had grown into an unstoppable juggernaut, one that along the way had slowed only to pick up members of the RNLI, the Manx Government, the Royal Navy and an assortment of police officials, coastguard personnel and church ministers. The response had been incredible.
We were in Whithorn that late December morning to meet up with some of the families of the lost crew, and I think the reality of what we were doing was finally sinking in. How do you ask someone about their dead son? How do you introduce yourself to a woman who was heavily pregnant when her husband drowned, and then look into the face of the 9 year old boy who had never even met his father? Phil and myself had retired to the bar for a ‘planning meeting’. It was a lame excuse and we knew it. We were hoping that an infusion of strong liquor would steady the nerves prior to our first meeting with the parents of Davy Lyons, a 17 year old lad, who at the time of his death hadn’t even been big enough to join the army!
Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children, it goes against the natural order of things, but over the course of that weekend we were to meet with three families who had done just that. Two of the boys had been just 17, inseparable friends, who had a lifetime of experiences ahead of them. The other had been 22. A combined age of 56, all gone in a matter of minutes. Then there was Karen Jolly (nee Mills), whose husband Robin had been the brother of the Solway’s skipper. We sat and listened as she told us about their last Christmas together, her children, Sarah and Robbie watching from the sofa as she described the last days of the father they had barely known. The stories were heartbreaking, but it wasn’t a feeling of senseless waste that we came away from Whithorn with, but rather an indomitable mood of quiet dignity. Whilst the memories were still raw and the anger still palpable, the spirit that remained was undefeated.
Back on the Isle of Man we began the task of enlisting the support and help of those who had been involved in the recovery of the vessel from Manx waters. I think few people at the time realised what a Herculean effort it was going to be to raise the boat, but having given their word to the families of the crew that they would bring the boys home, the Isle of Man government spared no effort in making good on their promise. The Manx Parliament and the Council of Ministers gave unanimous approval, Chief inspector Dudley Butt was tasked with investigating the sinking and John Foster, who at that time was the government’s Emergency Planning Officer, was given the somewhat daunting responsibility of facilitating the recovery operation.
The determination of the Manx government to bring the Solway Harvester home incurred the furious wrath of the British government, with Whitehall and Tynwald clashing bitterly over the unprecedented decision to raise the boat. Manx fortitude won the day however and over the next few weeks the island lay at the centre of a huge media circus, as a growing army of salvage crews, divers and support craft lay siege to the waters off the coast. Huge lifting cranes were sailed around the Scottish coast, the RAF conspired with the Manx government to help bring the families across in secret and a plan of almost military precision was undertaken to implement the job of raising the boat. It took weeks of planning and organisation and some truly heroic efforts on the part of the dive teams involved in securing the vessel and searching for the crew and, in spite of the best efforts of the Irish Sea to thwart the operation, over the following months the boat and its crew were finally brought up.
The crew were eventually brought into Douglas on a cold February night, to the haunting lament of a solitary piper, but it took another five months before the Solway Harvester finally made it into Ramsey. The irony of the boat’s final journey couldn’t fail to escape many that day and, as the haunting vision of the Solway Harvester sailed into the bay, an eerie silence descended on the crowds that lined the harbour. The journey home had been a long and painful one, but despite the tragedy of the loss it was also one filled with hope. It saw men and women risk their lives in atrocious conditions that fateful January night. It saw politicians stand up for what was right, rather than what was expedient.
And it saw two communities come together in grief and remain together in friendship.
The Isle of Man went against every previous maritime precedent, overcame countless bureaucratic obstacles and even faced down the British government to raise the Solway Harvester and recover her crew. It is a decision that maybe not everyone agreed with at the time, but the people of Whithorn and Garlieston know that it was something their own government wouldn’t have done for them and for that they are eternally thankful. After 10 years maybe the time has come to finally lay the Solway Harvester to rest, but in these days of greed and corruption, it is inspiring that a story can still be told of the inherent goodness of the human spirit.
All photographs copyright Phil Kneen.