Fraserburgh remembers brave victims of lifeboat disaster 50 years on

The courage and sacrifice of six RNLI lifeboat men, five of whom drowned when their boat capsized during a call out was commemorated in Fraserburgh at the weekend.

Monday, 20th January 2020, 11:04 am
The Duchess of Kent lifeboat
The Duchess of Kent lifeboat

Tuesday 21 January 2020 marked 50 years since The Duchess of Kent lifeboat launched in challenging conditions to the aid of the Danish fishing vessel Opal.

On a day of phenomenally bad weather, with a force 8 to 9 gale, distress signals were reported 40 miles out to sea shortly after 7 o’clock in the morning.

A Danish fishing vessel with four persons on board had sprung a leak and was described as ‘in a sinking condition’.

Coxswain John Stephen was in command of a six-man volunteer, RNLI crew who were on the water by 7.34am facing heavy seas as they made their way to the fishing vessel.

In that time a Russian parent ship was standing by the Opal and had already applied the tow.

The lifeboat was tasked with escorting both vessels back to port, however it was at that point when disaster struck.

The lifeboat was swamped, and a huge wave capsized the lifeboat. Initially it was unclear how many lifeboat crew were aboard and who was safe.

It was only when crew member John Buchan was picked up by the Russian ship, after being flung clear during the capsize, that the full extent of the situation became clear.

When the lifeboat was righted with assistance from the Russian vessel, the bodies of four of the crew were found trapped inside the hull and one crew member remained missing.

Coxswain John Stephen, and crew members William Hadden, James Buchan and James R. S. Buchan along with the missing Mechanic Frederick Kirkness lost their lives.

The tragedy left five widows and 15 children without their fathers.

The 1970 disaster marked the third time that a lifeboat from Fraserburgh had been lost. The North East town had previously faced tragedy in 1953 and 1919 as well, 13 crew in total lost their lives. This third tragedy stunned the community yet again. The joint funeral of the lost crew was attended by 13,000 people.

Mark Hadden, whose grandfather lost his life in the disaster, has been on the crew at Fraserburgh lifeboat since August 2018

Speaking about the disaster and those who lost their lives, Mark said: ‘These men were local Fraserburgh men.

“They went out in the most appalling weather conditions regardless of what could happen and what the outcome would be.

“They went out to save the lives of others – and in doing so tragically, and selflessly, lost their own lives.

“Every one of those men should be remembered for what they gave and sacrificed that day.

“I know that I will always remember what they gave, and I hope that we will always take the time to remember their sacrifice.’

While on service with the RNLI between 1959-1970, The Duchess of Kent lifeboat launched 23 times and saved 13 lives.

After the disaster of 1970 the lifeboat station became temporarily non-operational. Fraserburgh’s current lifeboat is a Trent class all-weather lifeboat, Willie and May Gall, which has been on station since 2002.

Coxswain of the current lifeboat is Vic Sutherland.

The sacrifice of those 50 years ago still lives long in the memory of the current volunteers as they take to the seas today.

Vic said: “Today we remember the six Fraserburgh volunteers who left their families to go to the aid of others, five of whom never returned.

“Their sacrifice lives long in the memory here at the station and they are never far from our thoughts each time we answer the pager.’

While our modern-day lifeboats may be more sophisticated and technologically advanced than those used in the past, the bravery and courage exhibited by RNLI volunteers continues to be shown today.