Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: The tale of Portrush lifeboat's most dangerous call-out ever

Some 30 years ago today the volunteer crew of Portrush Lifeboat launched in dreadful conditions to reports of two Spanish trawlers in difficulty. This was when the famous Portrush picture was taken by photographer Ian Watson
Some 30 years ago today the volunteer crew of Portrush Lifeboat launched in dreadful conditions to reports of two Spanish trawlers in difficulty. This was when the famous Portrush picture was taken by photographer Ian Watson
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

The full story behind Portrush lifeboat's most terrifying rescue call-out, which was immortalised in an iconic photograph, has been told for the first time.

It was 30 years ago that photographer Ian Watson captured the Richard Evans lifeboat as it set out on the afternoon of February 13, 1989 after reports that two Spanish fishing vessels on Lough Swilly had run aground on the Donegal coastline.

Amid 100mph winds and 40ft high waves, the lifeboat had just battled out of the harbour when one of the seven crew, Terry Murdoch, was thrown against the wheel by the force of the storm and cracked two ribs.

After half an hour, the crew received a call to say that they would not be required after all.

However, the severity of the storm prevented them returning to shore and they had to spend the night in Greencastle Harbour, not returning to Portrush until the next day.

The dramatic photograph of the vessel during what was said to be the worst storm ever seen in the area, is regarded as one of the most stunning images of a lifeboat at sea, conveying the sheer courage of the crew in the face of danger.

At the time Ian Watson lived near the harbour and despite the challenging weather conditions, he described capturing the scene as just luck.

Sign In

The strong winds meant he couldn't stand up, and every time he tried to take a shot, the camera lens got covered in spray.

Instead Mr Watson went back to his house, wedged himself in the hallway and took the pictures from there.

One of the crew, Mark Mitchell, who was 21 at the time, had already done several call-outs from the north coast base but said this was the most dangerous to date.

Recalling the terrifying events of three decades ago for the first time, he said: "We sat at the harbour entrance for what seemed like a lifetime as we strapped in and prepared.

"We were all well-experienced seafarers, but we knew this one was going to be bad.

"I was terrified. But we weren't allowed to say so because we were men in a man's world.

"In those days we couldn't show our fear."

Mr Mitchell added: "In a lesser boat we would have been dead, but the legendary stability of the Richard Evans Arun Class Lifeboat pulled us back to something resembling an even keel.

"As we hit the wave's trough, the sea exploded around us. We were completely submerged.

"The constantly moving window wipers, designed to quickly clear heavy spray, were stopped by the force of the sea.

"Every rivet and bolt shuddered as the Richard Evans fought her way back to the surface."

Just then the radio message came through that the two Spanish trawlers were no longer in any danger.

Despite being told to return to base, Mr Mitchell said he knew that no boat could turn in those conditions without inevitable capsize.

He said: "We had no choice but to go on towards the shelter of Lough Foyle and the haven of Greencastle.

"Normally a 45-minute passage, we battled on for three hours to keep upright."

When safely back in port, Mr Mitchell said for the first time that night there was "an almost painful silence" among the crew.

"There we were, alive and alone with our own thoughts" he added.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph