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hist_theoldhamBeautiful and terrifying in equal measure, the sea can be an unforgiving mistress. The coastlines around the British Isles are littered with wrecks that have fallen prey to her unpredictable moods and these Islands are no stranger to the power of the sea’s unrelenting fury. The early part of the nineteenth century saw some 1,800 vessels a year being wrecked along our coasts. Death and the sea became an integral part of life amongst coastal communities, who could only watch helplessly as ships foundered in the boiling seas.

In 1824 that all changed…

That was the year that Sir William Hilary founded the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, later changed to the much racier, Royal National Lifeboat institution. This year marks the charity’s 190th anniversary and from its humble beginnings, amongst the treacherous waters off the Isle of Man, the RNLI today has around 1,000 lifeguards and 236 lifeboat stations dotted around the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Isles, rescuing on average some 22 people a day. In real terms that equates to more than 140,000 lives saved, countless vessels rescued and nearly two centuries of dedicated and selfless service by its volunteer crews.

(c) Manx National Heritage; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe RNLI today has come a long way since the night of November 19, 1830, when a 60 year old William Hilary took to a lifeboat to rescue the crew of the St George. That night, in the fierce waters of the Irish Sea, the lifeboat lost its rudder and had six of its oars smashed. Its crew were washed overboard on more than one occasion and Hilary himself suffered six broken ribs and a shattered chest bone. But the crew of the St George were saved and the legacy that is the RNLI was born.

The words, ‘With Courage, Nothing is Impossible’, are inscribed on the RNLI memorial in Poole, Dorset. They are testimony to more than 800 lifeboat crew and others who have lost their lives endeavouring to save other at sea…And nearly two centuries on, the sight of the famous orange and blue livery crashing through the waves can still reduce even the most hardy sailor to tears of relief.

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img663After 14 long, painful and contentious years, the last voyage of the Solway Harvester is finally coming to an end. The boat’s sinking, in storm force winds off the Isle of Man on the late afternoon of the 11 January 2000, still remains the worst maritime disaster to ever occur in Manx waters. All seven crew were lost including two brothers and two 17 year old friends. The effect of the tragedy on the small Scottish community of Whithorn was profound, but what set this incident apart was what happened next.

Over the days and weeks that followed, the Isle of Man government went to extraordinary lengths to recover the boat and her crew. In the face of stiff opposition from the British government, the Manx Parliament set in motion a series of events that were to have emotive and far reaching consequences on both sides of the water. For 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 brought in, the Royal Air Force 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 and recovering the crew.

Four years ago, photographer Phil Kneen and myself set out to document in words and pictures the circumstances behind the Solway Harvester’s tragic sinking. Our intention was to pay tribute to the extraordinary efforts that had been made to return the crew to their families and to highlight the human story behind the tragedy. To that end we attempted to tell it from the perspective of those most deeply affected. To let the people who had lived through those few emotive weeks tell the story in their own words.

That was how we found ourselves sat in a pub in Whithorn, on a crisp winter’s day in the late December of 2009. We had come to meet up with some of the families of the lost crew and, frankly, I think it was just sinking in what we had taken on. How do you ask someone about their dead son, or introduce yourself to a woman who was heavily pregnant when her husband drowned, and then look into the face of the nine year old boy who had never even met his father? Our first meeting was 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!

Over the course of that weekend we were to meet up with other families with similar tragic tales to tell. Two of the boys had been just 17, inseparable friends, who had a lifetime of experiences ahead of them. Another had been 22. A combined age of 56, all gone in a matter of minutes. From the time of the last known communication from the boat, to the time that the Solway Harvester’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) had been activated, just 18 minutes had passed. Most of the crew hadn’t even had time to get on deck.

It was in the early hours of the 10 January 2000 that the scallop dredger Solway Harvester slipped her moorings and pointed her bow south, heading towards the rich fishing grounds lying off the Isle of Man. 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. With the storm growing worse, the decision was made to haul in the gear and make for the shelter of Ramsey Bay. It was the last journey they would ever make. At 17.47 on 11 January 2000, a polar orbiting satellite picked up the signal from the EPIRB, indicating that the boat had lost its battle with the growing storm and battering waves.

The winds by now had increased to severe gale force 9, gusting to storm force 10, and the search for the missing boat pitted man and machine against the unrelenting fury of the Irish Sea.

The conditions and the heavy rain made it increasingly difficult for the lifeboats, with visibility down to nothing and the heavy seas making life uncomfortable for the crews manning the searchlights. 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. The boat and her seven man crew failed to materialise though 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 and a further three weeks to recover her crew. The bodies were finally brought up on the 4 February 2000 and escorted into Douglas Bay to the haunting lament of a solitary piper. The families were waiting on the quayside that night and, as the bodies were placed on Victoria Pier, the final chords of Ellan Vannin drifted out across the harbour. It took another five months before the Solway Harvester finally made it into Ramsey. There were no pipers that day, just an eerie silence from the thousands who lined the harbour as the shattered wreck entered the bay.

Over the coming days the final chapter of this tragedy will be played out, as the last remnants of the Solway Harvester’s rusting hull is cut up and scrapped. The journey has been a long and painful one, due primarily to a drawn out and bitter legal dispute. Fourteen years ago 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 not everyone agreed with at the time, but for the people of Whithorn and Garlieston it meant they could bury their sons and move on. And for that they will be externally grateful.

John Jolly was the father of Wesley, the youngest member of the Solway Harvester’s crew. I shall let him have the final say…

“If it hadn’t been for Donald Gelling and the Isle of Man we would have been facing a long fight. The British Government wasn’t interested; it wasn’t in their agenda. The Scottish Government as well. They think that’s where a fisherman should lie. In my mind there was only one fisherman on the boat that night and that was Craig, the rest were just there to try and make some money…My son wasn’t a fisherman.”

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To the memory of the crew of the Solway Harvester…Rest in Peace…

Photographs copyright Phil Kneen

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To be wrenched from your sleep at four in the morning is never a good thing. To be wrenched from your sleep at four in the morning by your Lifeboat pager going off though, that injects a foreboding sense of dread into the proceedings.

This is no time to find yourself in trouble on the Irish Sea, even during one of the best summer’s in years.

In the early hours of Saturday 27 July, the Peel Lifeboat launched into the predawn calm of what was promising to be yet another glorious day on the Isle of Man. For the families of two missing fishermen though it was to prove far from glorious. Over the course of the next 15 hours a massive air and sea search was carried out along the western and northern coasts of the island, covering an area of some 930 square kilometres. Throughout the day, four lifeboats, as well as helicopters from RAF Valley and RNAS Prestwick and a fixed wing aircraft belonging to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency combed the area in search of the two men. Their capsized boat was found relatively early on, but it took us until later that afternoon to come across the first of the bodies. We’d known once we found the boat that there was probably little chance of finding the men alive, but we knew that giving up without finding the bodies was not an option. Families just a few miles away were relying on us to bring them home. And we were determined not to let them down. It came with an almost tragic sense of relief therefore when we found the second of the two friends.

Since its foundation in 1824, the RNLI has saved over 140,000 lives in the seas off Britain and Ireland. This, unfortunately, was not to be one of those times. In spite of the tragic conclusion to the day though it did highlight one thing, that selfless sacrifice is not a thing of the past. Since the founding of the RNLI nearly 200 years ago its volunteer crews have never shirked the call to help. What these events proved though was that it isn’t just the crews that race to the call. Throughout that day the members of the Lifeboat committee also stepped up, keeping the boat and shore crews fed and watered during the day, and for that we were eternally grateful. This island has a long and proud connection with the RNLI. Its founder, Sir William Hilary lived here and it was in the storm tossed waters of the Irish Sea that the service first cut its teeth.

After the events of the past weekend, and in spite of the tragic outcome, I don’t think I have ever felt prouder to be a part of it.

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Few of us probably fully appreciate our parents until they are no longer there. Let’s face it, we never really treat them with anything other than passing sufferance most of the time and how often do we ever REALLY talk to them?

This weekend I attended my parents’ Diamond Wedding Anniversary. Sixty years of marriage! That is an incredible achievement in anyone’s book. There are countries out there that haven’t endured that long. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t all been roses and champagne over the past six decades. I can remember fights and arguments when I was a kid and they bicker constantly, like…well…an old married couple actually. But they are still together and they deserve a little more than my passing sufferance these days.

I spend my life travelling and talking to people about their lives, but I am ashamed to say I have never given my parents the same consideration. That was until last weekend. Between them, my folks have a combined life span of some 170 years and a wealth of memories that would fill a library. They survived the Blitz together. My dad served in Palestine during the first ever Arab-Israeli conflict in 1947. And my mum, apparently, used to watch aerial dogfights in the skies above Birmingham on her way from school. Why had it taken me so long to sit down and listen to this?!

Over the course of the weekend we spent hours talking. I hadn’t seen them this animated in years. I took my mum to visit an old school friend of hers and sat and listened (yes, listened) whilst they spent the afternoon reminiscing about lost loves, dance halls and a late night motorbike ride back home during the blackout?! My mother…on the back of a motorbike…with a man who wasn’t my father?! This was a revelation!

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘It takes a long time to become young’. It would seem that my parents have been getting younger all these years without me even realising it.

…I’m glad I’ve remedied that now.