By Ronald Neil, formerly of the BBC (extract)The Pentland Firth is one of
the most dangerous stretches of water in the world. Powerful currents and tidal
races compete with each other and when whipped up by a driving gale the seas can
be awesome.And on the winter’s night of March 18 1969 the eight-mile wide strait
separating the Orkney Islands from the Scottish mainland was at her most
A Force 9 south-east gale had been blowing for three days. It was snowing.
Visibility was virtually zero, and the tidal races were running at 10 knots
against the wind.It was into this fearsome mountain of sea that coxswain Dan
Kirkpatrick launched the Longhope lifeboat TGB in a bid to rescue the crew of a
stricken tanker, Irene.The situation was a deadly one. An immense flood tide
running like a millrace south-east out of the firth and meeting the seas pouring
down the east side of South Ronaldsay … both of them opposed by the south-east
gale. One Orcadian commented afterwards: “It was the way into Death’s dark vale
if ever there was one.”
In trying to convey to viewers in the comfort of their own homes some sense
of the scale of the storm that night, I said in a report for BBC News that the
waves the Longhope crew faced were the height of four double-decker buses,
stacked one on top of the other… upwards of 60 feet.In fact the freak wave that
took her was said to be all of 100 feet high. It is reckoned that the lifeboat
climbed this mountainous lump of sea, and then toppled over backwards.
Wick radio reports only silence
By 10 o’clock that night Wick radio could get no reply from the TGB … there
was only silence. When I arrived on the Orkney island of Hoy with a news camera
team the next day, the community was already fearing the worst.The RNLI honorary
secretary on the island, Jackie Groat, agreed to an interview. His comment at
that time was remarkable. If the lifeboat was lost then they must have a new
one, for it had been their task down the generations to police the seas of the
We flew back with the film to Aberdeen for insert into the national news.
As the plane bucked and slewed a few hundred feet above the Pentland Firth we
spotted below us the most awful sight of all… the TGB floating upside down,
being tossed and thrown by the unforgiving seas.That was the image that 10
million BBC viewers saw on their teatime news that night.
Behind us we had left an island community devastated by the disaster. All
but one of the lifeboat crew were found in the upturned hull. Coxswain Dan
Kirkpatrick was still at the helm. Not one had survived.The community was to
learn that the crew of the Irene had not required the lifeboat after all. They
had all been safely taken ashore by breeches buoy.
Amazingly, when the RNLI inspector called at each home to break the
terrible news, one of the first questions he was asked by every one of the
Longhope widows was about the crew of the Irene. Without exception they all said
their husbands would have been so pleased to have known they were safe…….
No official ceremonies of remembrance were held today, with victims'
families preferring to mark the occasion privately.Tony Trickett, operations
manager of the Longhope lifeboat, said islanders would remember the tragedy in
their "own quiet way".
He said: "There are still some widows on the island and they decided they
would rather not do anything specific today - they live within sight of the
lifeboat shed and see it every day."We will commemorate the tragedy in our own
quiet way as we have done for many years.
"We in the lifeboat service will always remember this and my own flag is
flying at half mast today."It was the most dreadful of tragedies and is still
very much in people's minds."But support for the lifeboat remains - we are a
lifeboat community and have been since 1874."
There is a website, www.fakecharities.org which is administered by DK, if ever there was an example of a real charity, the RNLI is it.