The phone rang...
“How soon can you be in the Shetland Isles?
“Probably by tomorrow. Why?”
“OK then, tomorrow you will be coxswain of the Shetland lifeboat!”
That quick conversation took place in 1967. I was sitting at an office desk at the headquarters of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in London. As “Inspector of Lifeboats,” I was responsible for all the lifeboat stations along a considerable stretch of the U.K. coastline, but I had been temporarily allocated to the head office. Bored with office work and hankering to get back to sea, I jumped at this chance to do “proper” work again. That evening I was on a plane heading north.
The lifeboat I was joining was an experimental one, a large, deep-water boat with a full-time crew that was designed to cruise the challenging waters in the area north of Scotland. Following the trend of the Dutch, German and Scandinavian lifeboat organizations, RNLI had purchased its first cruising lifeboat. My job was not only to make the lifeboat available for rescue work in the far north, but also to assess the capabilities of this new design in rough seas.
Testing new lifeboat designs is an exciting job. You go out in the worst conditions you can find, quite purposefully, and see what happens. It requires a significant amount of experience, and I had plenty from my time working on a lighthouse tender around Great Britain. I had also done some wild passages of my own, including taking a 48-footer down the Irish Sea in a Force 11 storm and operating in the English Channel when the weather was so severe that the big ferries had ceased operations.
Though I was excited to get out of the office and back on the water—and anything was better than London in the winter—I was apprehensive about operating in the challenging seas around these northern remote islands.
The Shetland Isles comprise the northern tip of the British Isles, lying at 60 degrees north latitude, close to the Arctic Circle. They are situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, and twice a day the tide runs in and out between the islands at ferocious speeds. Tidal races are common. The pilot book says that the flow can reach speeds exceeding 12 knots in the Pentland Firth that runs between the Orkney Islands and the Scottish mainland. Combine these tides with fierce westerly gales that sweep the region in the winter months and you have a recipe for some of the wildest seas in the world.
The crew of this 70-foot boat (simply dubbed “70-001”) lived on board, so we were ready at very short notice to head out to sea in an emergency. We were based in Lerwick, the main town of the Shetland Isles. The first three days of my assignment, I took the boat out just to get a feel for how she handled. We headed down to the bottom end of the main island to Sumburgh where the tide race would be ideal for testing the new design. Not only does a tide race generate some very wild short and steep seas, but because the waves have quite clearly defined edges, you can dodge in and out of them to the extent you feel comfortable.
The first thing that became obvious was that this lifeboat was very wet. She had a relatively low bow and when pushed hard, as she would be when engaged in rescue work, a great deal of spray came over the bow. However, this was only spray, and the bow lifted readily to waves so we did not ship any heavy seas. She was the first RNLI lifeboat built of steel and also the first to have a deep draft, so she sat well in the water. The deep draft gave a reassuring footing, particularly in following seas where there felt little risk of broaching. Built along traditional lines, she was a heavy displacement boat with almost no straight lines anywhere in her construction.
Power came from a pair of eight-cylinder Gardner diesels. These massive engines only turned at around 1200 rpm, and their reassuring rumble made you feel like they would last forever and never fail. To minimize stress, each engine only produced 230 horsepower, and they were housed in separate engine compartments for added security. With a top speed of 11.5 knots, we were not going to break any speed records heading out on a rescue, but we knew we would be able to keep going when everyone else was seeking shelter.
To get familiar with the waters, we planned an extended cruise on the lifeboat, first heading south to tiny Fair Isle. Well known around the world for its distinctive knitted sweaters, the island has a population of only 30 residents. We were warmly received by residents in the tiny harbor, and the respite from the stormy seas allowed us to regroup with a hot meal.
From Fair Isle, we then headed farther south to the ultimate testing ground, the Pentland Firth. The forecast predicted westerly gales, which was great for lifeboat testing but bad for a comfortable voyage. In the early light we rounded the distinctive Old Man of Hoy, a 300-foot rock pillar just off the west coast of the main island in the Orkney group. Then we entered the Pentland Firth. We were fully battened down as we expected substantial seas. I was at the helm from the boat’s low-slung flybridge. That was a grand name for the tiny single-person helm position located on top of the pilothouse, but it gave a great view of the seas ahead.
A row of standing waves, known as the “Merry Men of Mey,” extends right across the Pentland Firth. With the westerly gale and the ebb tide, I could see these violent breaking waves in the distance as a line of white foam along the horizon. We were in large following seas, and the boat behaved impeccably, but as we approached, the line of breaking waves looked enormous. This was the ultimate test for a boat, and I began to have doubts about the wisdom of what I was doing.
We rode the first wave. The second one caught us under a violent cascade of white water. Up in my isolated helm position the whole boat disappeared beneath the wave, and I felt like I was the last person left in the world. Then slowly, ever so slowly, the boat lifted free from the maelstrom. But there was another wave coming. It seemed an age before we finally came clear of that violent chain of breaking waves rearing up 40 or 50 feet above us.
I found it hard to imagine that any boat could have survived that sort of battering, but we came out the other side without damage—well, no damage to the boat at least. Lifeboats are designed to operate in the roughest of seas and still have something left over to help others. I doubt we had anything left to help others in those waves, but at least we survived pushing the boat to its limit. We left the Merry Men behind and headed for shelter. With a battered and bruised crew, we holed up in Scapa Flow to let the storm subside.
I had never seen seas like that and I haven’t seen them since, even when I was out in a Force 12 hurricane in the Atlantic. The boat came through with flying colors, though, and the experiment of lifeboat/cruising boats continued for the next two decades. The RNLI’s original cruising lifeboat was based at various stations around the coast until the RNLI decided to abandon the concept of cruising lifeboats and 70-001 was sold out of service to the Icelandic Coast Guard for operations even further north. Later she became a dive boat and was subsequently sold to a Dutch owner who converted her into an all-weather cruising yacht.
Imagine my surprise 40 years later when in the Netherlands I came across 70-001 lying in harbor in Stellendam, still looking almost identical to that lifeboat I had tested to the limits decades before. The owner welcomed me on board and we arranged for a short trip to sea just for old times’ sake.
The vessel had been renamed Dolphin, but apart from the name board and the fresh gray paint on the superstructure in place of the high-visibility lifeboat orange, she looked identical to how I remembered her. The other most significant change I noted was that the brass fire cannon on the foredeck was beautifully polished. (It had been painted in my day.) In both the pilothouse and the engine room, polished brass was everywhere and everything was gleaming—the sure sign of a loving owner. Of course there were additions made since she retired from service. Electronic navigation had been installed in the pilothouse, along with modern monitoring and communications equipment. Two life rafts had been mounted on top of the pilothouse where previously there had only been one mounted aft. But otherwise she looked and felt the same—until I saw the accommodations belowdecks.
Below, the utilitarian workboat interior of old had been re-paneled with rich mahogany, and comfortable-looking beds had replaced stiff bunks. The compact salon looked smart with all of its polished wood and stainless steel in the galley. All of these upgrades fit with the role of the boat’s newfound cruising purpose. These days, the owner uses it mainly for charter work, taking out small groups for voyages of exploration in Scandinavian waters, but also for day trips involving larger groups (hence the need for a second liferaft). This 50-year-old lifeboat is living a new life as a cruising yacht, and it is perhaps the ultimate passagemaker.
It was quite an emotional moment for me when I heard those Gardner diesels start up. It was even more emotional to climb up to that flybridge helm station and relive the hours I spent there facing the roughest seas in the world.