Backstay saves sailor from certain death

RNLI Rescue
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They breed sailors tough in Scotland. As lone sailor Gerry Beard this week clung for dear life to the rigging wire he had managed to grab when swept overboard by heavy seas north of Scotland, a phrase his grandmother used when the weather was bad sprang to mind: 'Heaven help a sailor on a night like this'.

Stornoway RNLI lifeboat, headquartered in the Outer Hebrides, launched at 1.30pm on Saturday, September 15th, to the aid of Mr Beard, 72, and yacht Meris, sailing around 50 miles off the Butt of Lewis in whole gale force conditions.

The Stornoway Coastguard helicopter also attended the scene, as well as fishing vessel Inverdale which stood by whilst events unfolded on the heavy seas.

A competent sailor, first introduced by his father to yacht life aged 11, Mr Beard was on the last day of a round trip from his home in Sheildaig, Scotland, to Reykjavick, Iceland.

Caught up in the tail end of a tropical storm, weather conditions had not been easy throughout the trip – on one day Mr Beard had been forced to stay below for 16 hours in Force 10 (55-63kts) conditions, and was also suffering from damaged ribs due to a fall six days earlier.

'It was the last day. I was being very careful as I knew I was exhausted. I didn't want to get complacent, not on the last day,' he said.

Yet, despite his care, disaster struck when Mr Beard climbed out of his cabin to be struck by an enormous wave.

'I'd poked my head out and looked around and everything seemed fine,' he recalled. 'I opened the cabin doors, took a step out, bent down to pick up my tether and then I just got hit by a wave that came from nowhere.

'I'd been so careful to clip myself on at all times during the trip, but this just took me. I was in the air, inside a wall of water, and I put my arms out as you do when you fall and just caught the back of the backstay and held onto it.'

Mr Beard continued: 'The water went away and I remember looking down to see I was above the boat, then the next wave took the boat and swung it back towards me and I fell into a gap between the guide wires and the cockpit.'

Recovering, Mr Beard inspected the damage back on board, finding the lump of water which had knocked him overboard had also ripped off the cabin doors and left the Meris – which translates from Latin as 'Of the Sea' – half filled with salt water.

Radio equipment was swamped and unable to send a Mayday signal, so Mr Beard ripped off his personal EPRIB alarm at pushed the button.

Bailing out the boat, 30 minutes later and the solo sailor heard the welcome arrival of the Stornoway coastguard chopper.

Not wanting to leave the disabled vessel, Mr Beard was informed that Stornoway Lifeboat would arrive in a couple of hours and that the fishing vessel Inverdale, 11 miles from the scene, was coming to stand by whilst the helicopter returned to refuel.

Mr Beard continued to bail and the Tom Sanderson lifeboat was soon aside before setting a tow line between the two vessels at around 5pm. Both vessels arrived at the safety of Stornoway harbour at around 3.30am on Sunday (September 16th) – a full 14 hours after the RNLI lifeboat launched for rescue.

It was here that Mr Beard was greeted by Stornoway Fishermen's Mission Port Missioner Superintendent Finlay Macleod, who had been briefed of the sailor's situation by the volunteer Stornoway RNLI crew.

Mr Macleod commented: 'The sunny conditions in the picture bear no reality to the heavy driving rain in the darkness at 3.30am when we picked Mr Beard up on the pier.

'All he wanted was a hot shower, dry clothes, a meal and a bed; all of which the Stornoway Mission provided him at no cost during his two night stay.'

He continued: 'We applied first aid to the salt water abrasions on his feet, then he slept like a babe. For someone in his age group, to be able to retain his powers of concentration over the period of two days sitting for hours at the tiller, cold, wet, without proper food in nine to ten storms is remarkable and a credit to Gerry and his fitness.'

Expressing great gratitude to all who had assisted in his rescue, Mr Beard added: 'I want to tell the story to highlight just what a job everyone has done. The Coastguard were magic, not just in terms of their help, but also in terms of making my wife feel better when she became concerned.

'Finlay brought me a bacon sandwich when he came to meet me and has done so much for me since, and the lifeboat was terrific, I hope the fishermen up here realise how lucky they are.'

Below is the RNLI video taken of the rescue: