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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

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.

Two years ago, photographer Phil Kneen and myself set out to recount the tragic story of the sinking of the Solway Harvester, in January 2000. Many on the Isle of Man knew the background to the disaster, but few, it seemed, had any real notion as to the human cost of the tragedy. The final exhibition, which ran for several weeks, proved to be a powerful reminder of an event that still remains the worst maritime disaster in Manx Waters. Reducing grown men to tears and even eliciting a quivering lip from a passing BBC journalist, the project tested mine and Phil’s relationship to the limit. It was a journey that I don’t think either of us were really considering undertaking again. But time, as they say, is a great healer. And so, two years on, here we are again, about to embark on an even more testing journey, this time to the wilds of northern Canada!

As with most journeys, this one started simply enough. A casual remark, a few scrawled notes on the back of an envelope and suddenly we were bound for the northern shores of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. The subject of this latest collaboration is the city of Yellowknife, the capital and pretty much only city in the territory. Lying some 500 kilometres to the south of the Arctic Circle and over 1500 kilometres from the next city of any real size (Edmonton in neighbouring Alberta), Yellowknife is home to around 20,000 hardy souls, a population which, remarkably, constitutes about 50% of the entire population of the Northwest Territories! This is a city very much on the edge…It was perfect.

Lying along the Canadian Shelf, surrounded by small lakes and forests of pine and birch, the city enjoys a reputation for eccentricity that only added to its appeal. The traditional homeland of the Yellowknives Dene, one of Canada’s First Nations people, the community today is an eclectic mix of characters and contrasts, with Mounties and miners sharing the lakeshore with truckers, huskies and, apparently, the largest collection of ravens in North America. Even its streets warrant more than a passing glance. ‘Ragged Ass Road’, one of the city’s most famous thoroughfares, made the cover of a Tom Cochrane album, whilst the ice roads that lead north out of Yellowknife, towards the diamond mines beyond the Arctic Circle, are amongst the longest and most famous in the world. The more we learned about this place, the more we liked it!

Yellowknife today is the self-styled ‘Diamond Capital of North America’, but it began life as a gold mining town back in the late 1890s, when prospectors on their way to the rich seams in the Klondike staked claims along the shores of Yellowknife Bay. Back then though the settlement was too remote even for gold-hungry prospectors and it wasn’t until the 1930s that any serious mining took place. As the gold began to run out the city’s prospects then took another turn for the better, when the discovery of diamonds at Point Lake in 1991 started the largest staking rush in Canadian history. This is a city whose pedigree and character is constantly evolving, being forged by the very landscapes that surround it. This is also a place that consistently refuses to lie down and take it easy and, after the intensity of the Solway Harvester project, this was just what we needed to reenergise our collaborative endeavours.

One of the greatest explorers of the last century, H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman was once asked his advice on how to have an adventure. His reply was as succinct as it was simple: “Put on a good pair of boots and walk out the door”. Time constraints, alas, dictate that Phil and I have had to be a little more focused in our travel plans, but our philosophy once we get there still remains refreshingly uncluttered. How can you plan an agenda around a city that doesn’t actually seem to know what it is doing from one day to the next! The ultimate aim is to produce a series of photographs and stories that perfectly encapsulate ‘life on the edge’, documenting a way of life that, even in today’s social media obsessed world, still exists on the fringes of human habitation.

If nothing else, this promises to be interesting…

…To be continued.

Keep up to date with our adventures by following the blog at http://missluger.wordpress.com/