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Navy pilot speaks of French fisherman "swept away into blackness" in daring Cornwall rescue

By WBGraeme  |  Posted: February 04, 2014

  • Glad to be alive: Five of the crew from Le Sillon at RNAS Culdrose

  • The French trawler Le Sillon, before and after it was wrecked

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THE pilot of a Royal Navy helicopter has spoken of how a fisherman from a trawler was swept away by waves during a dramatic rescue at the weekend.

A tow rope had snapped leaving the French boat Le Sillon helpless in the 30-foot swell off the north coast of Cornwall on Saturday evening.

Without power or steering, the boat had been under tow by Padstow RNLI lifeboat with the Navy search and rescue helicopter hovering above. The wind was gusting up to 60mph.

Lieutenant Commander Dick Calhaem said they had just been about to winch the men to safety when the rope snapped.

“We’d just got over the boat and were working out to do a fo’c’s’le recovery, that’s from the front of the boat, when the tow rope broke,” he said.

“She swung right out in the swell and I thought: ‘My goodness, there’s no way we’re going to get someone on board now. How are we going to get these men off?’

“They’d gone from a position where they were relatively safe on board their boat awaiting rescue to one where they were going to smash up on the rocks.”

The French boat had been badly damaged by monstrous waves. Her bridge windows had been smashed and water had pouring into the wheelhouse, shorting out all the electrics.

In darkness, she was being driven by huge waves towards the rocky coastline, just north of Newquay.

Piloting the Navy helicopter overhead, Lieutenant Commander Calhaem said there was no choice for the men but to abandon ship.

“We decided the best way for the rescue then was to get them into the water, one by one, and pick them up,” he said.

“The aircrewman went down into the water too, he did that six times.”

After more than an hour over the boat, five men had been pulled from the water - but the last man, the skipper of the boat, was swept away by a wave.

“The final person, the master of the ship, he jumped off but swam around the front of the boat and was caught by the swell," Lieutenant Commander Calhaem said.

“He disappeared off into the blackness.

“We had our guy in the water and we were unsure exactly where this man had gone and where the fishing boat was at this point.

“I called the lifeboat and they scooted round and picked him up.”

“In terms of rescues, this was quite top draw. It was intense.”

He praised his fellow crew members as well as the RNLI lifeboat crew and coastguards for all pulling together for a successful rescue.

The other crew members were second pilot Kapitän- leutnant Steffan Volkwein, on exchange from the German Navy, observer Lieutenant-Commander Paul Robertson and aircrewman Petty Officer Russ ‘Patch’ Adams.

Richard Pitman, Padstow RNLI’s second coxswain, added his praise for all involved.

He said: “Our lifeboat crew did a brilliant job. They are all very experienced and knew what they were doing. At the end of the day everyone survived and that’s the main thing. The winch man did an amazing job, one minute he was in the air, the next in the water, he certainly earned his money.’’

The skipper of Le Sillon was taken to hospital after he was cut by broken glass. The remaining men were handed over to the Newlyn Fishermen’s Mission.

The following morning, the smashed wreck of Le Sillon was discovered near Porthcothan.

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