Orkney lifeboat tragedy to be remembered 50 years on

Painting of the TGB lifeboat which capsized off Hoy on March 17 1969 killing all eight crew on board. The painting hangs in Longhope Lifeboat Museum which is now raising funds to preserve its future. PIC: Contributed.
Painting of the TGB lifeboat which capsized off Hoy on March 17 1969 killing all eight crew on board. The painting hangs in Longhope Lifeboat Museum which is now raising funds to preserve its future. PIC: Contributed.
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A fundraising campaign has been launched to preserve a lifeboat museum on Orkney as it prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of a disaster which claimed the lives of eight crewmen including two fathers and their sons.

Longhope Lifeboat Museum on Hoy needs £30,000 for essential maintenance works with hopes the repairs can be completed before March 2019.

The Longhope Lifeboat Museum on Hoy needs urgent repairs. PIC: Contributed.

The Longhope Lifeboat Museum on Hoy needs urgent repairs. PIC: Contributed.

Then, it is planned to mark the 50th anniversary of the Longhope lifeboat disaster that lost eight crewmen to ‘mountainous’ seas during the attempted rescue of those on board the Liberian cargo ship SS Irene.

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Heavy rain, snow, spring tides and a force nine gale, which had been blowing for several days, churned up the Pentland Firth with the lifeboat lost to the storm.

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It is believed the crew of the TGB faced 60-foot waves as they advanced in near-zero visibility.

Kevin Kirkpatrick, 52, coxswain at the Longhope Lifeboat Station, lost his father John, a life-boatman, his grandfather Daniel, also a coxwain, and his uncle Ray, a bowman, in the tragedy.

Mr Kirkpatrick said: “What happened that night is part of our history.

“We want to mark the 50th anniversary as we do want to remember them, probably in a quiet way as that is normally the way we do it.”

Also killed that night were lifeboat motor mechanic Robert R Johnston and his two sons, James and Robert.

Mr Kirkpatrick, whose wife’s father was the young Robert Johnston, said he hoped to restore the museum to make it safe and secure for those visiting around the time of the 50th anniversary commemorations.

The museum sits in the lifeboat shed used by the RNLI from 1906 until 1999.

Inside is the old Thomas McCunn lifeboat, which served the seas between 1933 and 1962 when it was launched 101 times and rescued 308 people.

“We are very lucky as we have the original building and the lifeboat, the only slipway launching vintage lifeboat in the UK, if not the world,” Mr Kirkpatrick added.

On March 17 1969, the TGB was launched from the station at Brims at 8pm after receiving a distress call that the Irene was in difficulty east of Duncansby Head

The lighthouse keepers on the Pentland Skerries saw the TGB’s stern light about 9.35pm, battling through the water around one mile east of the Pentland Skerries.

Wick coastguard called the TGB at 10.10pm but there was no reply.

Meanwhile, the SS ‘Irene’ was driven ashore by the south-easterly winds about half a mile from Grimness, South Ronaldsay.

All on board were saved by buoys thrown in the water by the coastguard.

The disaster, one of the worst to hit the British lifeboat community, received widespread coverage in the national press with donations coming in from across the country to help the families, all who lived around the small community of Brims.

Lifeboat man Eric McFadyen and assistant mechanic James Swanson, whose body was never recovered, also died that night.

The seven recovered men were all buried together in a special plot at Longhope Cemetery.

Reports of the day detail how the widows sat together in Walls parish church for the funeral service.

Three of the widows still live in area, it is understood.

The wife of Dan Kirkpatrick said shortly after the tragedy: “I am happy that the lives of the Liberian coaster crew have been saved

“There are no recriminations or bitterness from anyone who has lost their menfolk in the lifeboat.”

Today, the fundraising campaign will help tell the story of the Longhope lifeboat community and maritime tradition for present and future generations.

Despite the losses, Mr Kirkpatrick said being drawn to the water was natural thing.

He said: “Being in the lifeboat is just a way of life. It is in us, it is my blood

“We enjoy being on the sea and we are surrounded by the sea. Really I have spent my life on the sea and this is a job where get to help people. What can be better than that?”

To donate to the fundraiser, visit www.gofundme.com