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Bravery award for rescue of four sailors

by Emma Philo, Isle of Wight Radio/Sail-World on 22 Jun 2011
Helicopter crew Simon O’Mahony and David Peel SW
The crew of a coastguard helicopter who saved four sailors on a sinking yacht near the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England are to receive a bravery award from His Royal Highness Prince Philip. The story of their difficulties in effecting the rescue makes gripping reading.

Winch operator Dave Peel and winchman Simon O'Mahony are to be awarded the Billy Deacon Search and Rescue Memorial Trophy at St James's Palace.

According to the award citiation, the men took on a daring rescue in very difficult conditions:

'On Sunday April 14th 2010 the Coastguard Helicopter 'Rescue 104' from Lee on Solent, with winchman Simon O'Mahony and winch operator David Peel on board, was scrambled to a report of a vessel that was taking on water and had put out a Mayday in the vicinity of the Shingles Bank near the Isle of Wight. The Shingles Bank is an area of shifting sand and shingle located just before the narrow entrance to the Western Solent and in an area of particularly fast flowing tides. It is a notorious area and the hazards can be compounded by heavy seas and strong south westerly winds.

'Once on scene the helicopter found the 27ft yacht 'Blu Argent' aground and in a very dangerous position. Part of its keel was embedded in the bank; it was beam on and was heeled over, being heavily pounded by the wind, waves and tide. There was a great deal of white water and the crew on deck seemed dwarfed by the breaking waves and swell.

'The Yarmouth Lifeboat was arriving on scene and was hurriedly readying its small inflatable 15hp 'Y' boat as it could not close the stricken yacht due to its draft.

'As the helicopter came to the hover 'Blu Argent' took a particularly large wave and started heeling over further, taking on a lot more water. The strong wind, breaking waves on the bank, tide and relatively shallow water made it evident that the yacht was in real trouble. The four sailors on board were all clinging to various parts of the vessel. The yacht still had some sail up and there were rigging lines and other equipment lurching about in a random manner

'The yacht then took another large wave, heeled right over to about 70 degrees and started dragging over the bank. Debris from the yacht started appearing and its hull was becoming substantially submerged. The yacht crew were obviously starting to struggle to continue holding on and they were certainly in danger of being washed off at anytime. There was then potential for them to be hit by parts from their own boat or tangled up in the rigging lines.

'It was evident that the situation was going from bad to worse so a decision was made to attempt a rescue. Simon O'Mahony, could clearly see the precarious nature of the situation he would face.

'Simon was winched out and slowly manoeuvred towards one of the crew. The situation, with the yacht moving about in an uncontrolled way, dragging broadside on the bank, and being pounded by the wind and waves, presented a very challenging task for the winch operator, Dave Peel.

'Due to the yacht's further movement, things were about to get even worse when Simon then got caught up in the sheets of the yacht, he was unable to reach the intended crew and could not make any headway in the conditions. This situation not only endangered Simon but the aircraft as well. It was at this point that Dave considered cutting the cable; fortunately he held his nerve and managed, using the winch, to thread Simon clear and back out of danger.

'The 'Y' boat then appeared and came close enough to the yacht to assist one of the sailors but was unable to recover him fully into the dinghy. It then backed away, the sailor hanging onto the dinghy's side with an RNLI crewmember leaning over the side helping him to hold on.

'The aircraft then moved back in with Simon, this time making contact with the female casualty, who was secured and recovered to the aircraft with Simon.

'By that time the 'Y' boat was making its way back to the yacht a second time and managed to secure another crewman. They then backed away again, with the survivor hanging on in the same manner as previously and returned to the Yarmouth Lifeboat in order to lift him out of the water. They had done a commendable job.

'It was decided the helicopter could not wait for the return of the Y boat so Simon was again lowered and the fourth crew, the skipper, was reached. Again in very difficult circumstances, the crewman was secured and they were both winched clear and recovered to the aircraft.

'The helicopter landed at the Isle of Wight hospital landing site and handed its two casualties over to the ambulance. They were shocked, cold and bewildered as to how it all went very wrong so quickly.

'They thanked Simon and Dave, and one of them said it was the most frightening experience of her life: Simon replied 'It was for me as well!'

'The winch operator's role in this rescue should not be underestimated. The pilot being unable to see the yacht, his only reference being the disturbed water over a moving tide and with the yacht trapped and dragging on the bank, presented a very challenging situation. It was thus a credit to Dave's calm instructions, skill and anticipation that this rescue was able to be accomplished.

'Winch operator Dave Peel and winchman Simon O'Mahony together displayed great professionalism and courage which resulted in these lives being saved. They are richly deserving of the award of The Billy Deacon Search and Rescue Memorial Trophy for 2011.'

You can listen to the Isle of Wight Radio by http://www.iwradio.co.uk/news/clicking_here.
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