23 January 2003

Coxswain Mark Sawyer (40) is to receive the RNLI’s Silver Medal for Gallantry and Mechanic Daniel Guy (23) the Bronze Medal for Gallantry for their part in saving the lives of the two crew, who were washed off the sinking yacht Paperchase, in appalling conditions on Saturday, 20 October 2002.

The service took place in darkness, with a wind blowing south-easterly gale force 8 and a wave height of 3m. The stricken yacht, which had been attempting to enter harbour, was hit by large waves and both crew were thrown into the water as the vessel began to sink. The crew members, a man and a woman, were recovered from the water. The male casualty saved by the heroic actions of Mechanic Daniel Guy.

The RNLI’s Trustee Committee has also awarded Medal Service Certificates to Crewmen Benjamin Delaunay (48), Keith Murphy (47), Mark Osborn (48), David Riley (23) and Richard Welch (30). Jason Foster, the lock keeper at Sovereign Harbour receives a letter of thanks from the Chief Executive of the RNLI.

The station honorary secretary, Captain John Banfield, said: ‘A remarkable service carried out in the worst of conditions made more so by taking place at low tide with a gale blowing. The crew acted as a team with Coxswain Sawyer and Mechanic Guy working calmly and with bravery. A service for all concerned to be proud of.’


Full details of the rescue are as follows:
At 1802 on Saturday 20 October, the Eastbourne lifeboat station honorary secretary, Captain John Banfield, was informed by Dover Coastguard that the 11 metre yacht Paperchase was experiencing severe weather some three nautical miles to the east of Sovereign Harbour and was intending to enter harbour in poor weather at low tide. The Coastguard requested the launch of the Eastbourne all weather lifeboat to escort the yacht into harbour. Concerned about the wisdom of the yacht attempting entry, Captain Banfield decided to proceed directly to the lifeboat station to assess the harbour conditions himself before agreeing to the launch.

The Yacht Paperchase, a Sigma 33 Bermudan sloop, was on passage from Ramsgate to Eastbourne. The vessel had just been purchased and it was the maiden passage under new ownership. At approximately 1745 one of the yacht’s crew had contacted Mr. Jason Foster, the Duty Officer at Eastbourne’s Sovereign Harbour, by mobile phone and stated that the yacht was experiencing heavy weather some 3 nautical miles to the east and wished to enter the harbour. The weather at the time was atrocious with the wind blowing gale force 8 from the southeast, the worst possible direction for entry into Eastbourne. The harbour is an exposed lee shore in southeast winds and, being close to spring low water, the approach channel was flanked to the east and west by shoal water. The swell was running obliquely across the entrance channel and was breaking on the shoal ground filling the air with spray. The marina approach is further complicated by the existence of the exposed wreck of the Barn Hill mid way along the channel and close to the starboard side. Nightfall was approaching and thus the prevailing conditions made an entry into Eastbourne imprudent.

The duty officer was concerned for the safety of the yacht and sought advice by telephoning the Coxswain of the Eastbourne all weather lifeboat, Mark Sawyer, at home. Coxswain Sawyer advised that the Duty Officer should contact Dover Coastguard but that, with the agreement of the Station Honorary Secretary, he would be willing either to escort the yacht into harbour or stand-by him offshore until conditions were such that it was safe to enter. Coxswain Sawyer was firmly of the opinion that the yacht should remain at sea and not risk entry. Coxswain Sawyer decided to proceed to the lifeboat station to assess the conditions himself.

At 1757 Dover MRCC received a telephone call from the Duty Officer of Sovereign Harbour stating that the yacht Paperchase, with two people aboard, was experiencing difficulty in coping with the severe weather conditions and had voiced concerns about entry into the marina in the prevailing conditions. The Coastguard agreed to request the launch of the Eastbourne all weather lifeboat.

Having been alerted by the Coastguard and after contacting Coxswain Sawyer by telephone, Captain Banfield proceeded to the lifeboat station arriving at 1810. At this time, Captain Banfield believed that the yacht would standoff the harbour and wait for the lifeboat; this would allow time for a considered and informed decision to be made as to how to proceed. On arrival at the Station, he was met by a large number of crew who had responded to the Honorary Secretary’s page in anticipation. Coxswain Sawyer pre-empted the decision to launch and had selected an experienced crew and instructed Mechanic Dan Guy to prepare for the lifeboat for sea by running the engines up.

In the meantime, the Sovereign Harbour Duty Officer had seen the yacht sailing under headsail only to seaward of the approach channel and advised the skipper to standoff and wait. Coxswain Sawyer and Captain Banfield proceeded to the Lock Keeper’s office to view the Harbour Entrance on CCTV to decide on an appropriate course of action. At this point, it became clear that, against advice, the yacht was approaching the safe water mark, which indicates the seaward extent of the approach channel, and was commencing her entry into harbour. The broken seas and surf extended well beyond the safe water mark. On passing the safe water mark, the skipper appeared to realise his mistake and attempted to bring the yacht head to sea under power in order to exit the channel. He made two attempts but each time the yacht was knocked back into the channel by the sea and the wind. He was now committed to the approach channel and was in peril. Captain Banfield immediately authorised the launch and Coxswain Sawyer proceeded to the lifeboat, which was berthed in the eastern lock just below the Lock Keeper’s office. The aim initially was to escort the yacht to the lock gates.

At 1826 RNLB The Royal Thames (ON 1195, Mersey class lifeboat, built in 1993,12 metres length overall and powered by twin turbocharged Caterpillar 3208 engines) slipped her berth in the lock and proceeded on service at full speed with seven crew on board, Coxswain Sawyer in command.

Having cleared the lock and rounded the inner harbour wall, the lifeboat experienced the full force of the weather and took 5 minutes to reach the harbour entrance and declare “on scene”; the time was now 1831. The wind was gale force eight from the southeast and the sea state was very rough with a short period. The wave height was reaching a maximum of 3m and the seas were breaking; it was over cast and pitch dark. There was no moon or any form of effective ambient light other than that provided by the lifeboat’s searchlights and the back scatter of the lifeboat’s navigation lights. In these conditions, the harbour entrance would have been an extremely dangerous area in which to operate. As the lifeboat left the relative protection of the breakwater, considerable quantities of water were taken over the bow and Coxswain Sawyer was having difficulty keeping the lifeboat’s head to sea. The echo sounder was reading intermittently due to aerated water but it was estimated that in the troughs, there was less than 1/2m beneath the keel. During the early part of the service, both Dover MRCC and the lifeboat had found it impossible to establish radio communications with the yacht despite repeated attempts.

Once in the approach channel, the coxswain and crew could just see the casualty in the failing light, she was well into the channel and entering an area of breaking water. The headsail was still rigged and drawing. Two large waves were seen to impact against the yacht on the port quarter followed by a third, which caused an uncontrollable broach bows to port. She grounded, spun on her keel 360 degrees and briefly re-floated. Momentum and the conditions carried her to starboard and out of the channel, grounding again on a shoal patch less then 100m from the northern breakwater. She came to rest bows southwest approximately parallel to the breakwater, port beam to the wind. The sea was breaking across the yacht and she was in danger of foundering if left to her own devices. The crew were unable to help themselves; two, one male and one female, were seen clinging to the mast and could have been washed overboard. Coxswain Sawyer instructed radio operator, David Riley, to inform Dover Coastguard of the circumstances and request shore assistance in the event the casualties’ were washed ashore or indeed in case the lifeboat foundered. Although it was believed there were only two casualties aboard, it was not 100% certain either on board the lifeboat or at Dover Coastguard.

Coxswain Sawyer decided to attempt establishing a tow but he had limited options, he could not get particularly close to the yacht nor did he wish to place the lifeboat across the sea with limited sea room. He opted to keep his head to sea and using the wind and engine power made a sternboard toward the casualty. This took him to within 10 m of bow of the casualty; limited depth prevented him closing the yacht sufficiently to allow a tow to be passed directly. Once as close as considered prudent, Mechanic Daniel Guy was instructed to heave a line across to the casualty crew for use as a messenger rope. Once successful, the towrope would be attached and hauled across. Four attempts were made, but the conditions were such that a lightweight heaving line could not be thrown with accuracy as it was blown downwind. Coxswain Sawyer was now concerned about endangering the lifeboat crew further by making repeated attempts to close a lee shore in 3m breaking seas. The yacht’s headsail had now shredded and was flapping free in the wind.

Coxswain Sawyer manoeuvred the lifeboat away from the casualty yacht and ordered the use of a speed line, which was prepared and fired by Mechanic Guy. It was fired down wind at approximately 45 degrees to the stern of the casualty. The rocket veered into wind and in doing so dropped the line across the yacht and into the hands of the male casualty. He was instructed by loud hailer to haul the speed line across until he had a firm grasp of the towline. He was then to proceed forward and secure the towline to the bow of the yacht. Having made contact with the towline he was, at first, reluctant to let go of the mast but after encouragement eventually proceeded forward hauling in the rope as he went. Throughout, Coxswain Sawyer was holding the lifeboat in position head to sea. The male casualty was seen to be having difficulty making his way forward because of the spray and because of the length and weight of the towline. In addition, as the rope was being paid out from the lifeboat it was being blown down wind, adding to the weight. Coxswain Sawyer let the lifeboat come astern in order to take the weight off the towline; in doing so the lifeboat came within 7 metres of the casualty and was sniffing the ground in broken water. At one point, Coxswain Sawyer believed he had briefly grounded and therefore slowly manoeuvred back into deeper water. Eventually, the tow was secured forward and Coxswain Sawyer took the weight. The yacht pivoted on its keel and gradually came head to sea. A combination of minimum tension on the towline and a now flooding tide caused the yacht to re-float and she was slowly towed into deeper water. During the re-floating, two white parachute flares were fired to illuminate the scene.

As the yacht re-floated, VHF radio communications were established with the yacht for the first time. By now it was approximately 1846. It was confirmed that there were only two casualties onboard, that they were both reasonably well and that the yacht appeared relatively unscathed.

From the lifeboat also, the yacht appeared to be in relatively good condition although Mechanic Guy thought it had a slight list. Soon after re-floating, a series of large waves hit the lifeboat causing it to pitch violently. The wave train then hit the yacht and she appeared to suffer a knock down in an area of surf, both crew were thrown into the water and the yacht began to sink bow first and then partially capsize onto her starboard side with the bows being washed to the north east, deck open to seaward. The weather caused her to be bounced towards the southern breakwater arm and she came to rest approximately 20 m from the breakwater. The tow was cut, the lifeboat came about and was positioned head to sea, as close as possible to the sunken yacht, only a small section of the port quarter being visible above the water. The mast was underwater, its position being identified by the shredded headsail. The two crew were seen outboard of the yacht but holding onto the pushpit rails. Waves were regularly breaking across the yacht, she was in broken water and was also being hit by the refracted backwash from the harbour wall; consequently she was rolling. The yacht was now beyond immediate recovery and Coxswain Sawyer’s priority became recovering the casualty crew from the water directly. Using the upper steering position VHF radio, Coxswain Sawyer informed the Coastguard of the situation and requested an ambulance to attend the lifeboat station. (After the service it transpired that the yacht had probably been holed during the first grounding. As it re-floated, free surface effect and the wind had caused the yacht to roll. The keel struck the seabed and came through the bottom of the yacht and she partially capsized).

Coxswain Sawyer made three attempts at closing the yacht in an attempt to recover the casualties. This was difficult in the prevailing conditions and was made worse by the submerged mast, rigging and cordage that was strewn about. On the first two occasions, heaving lines were thrown by the lifeboat crew but were washed away from the casualty, as was the lifeboat itself. On the third occasion, the lifeboat was positioned within four metres of the casualty vessel and a heaving line and the main towline were successfully passed to the female casualty. She held onto the heaving line and wrapped the towline around the male casualty who now appeared semi-conscious and was not in a position to help himself. Both casualties were pulled towards the lifeboat; the female eventually let go of her male partner and was hauled towards the port shoulder of the lifeboat where the crew had broken the guardrails to facilitate recovery. At approximately 1854 She was recovered with some difficulty by Crewmen Bob Delaunay, Keith Murphy, Mark Osborn and Richard Welch and was temporarily sat down on the deck. At this point, crewman Mark Osborn was almost washed over the side of the lifeboat through the break in the guardrail. He lost his balance when a wave broke against the starboard shoulder and passed through the lifeboat – he was quickly recovered with assistance from the female casualty who grabbed him as she saw him going over. Had he gone over the side, it would have proved very difficult to recover him. The guardrail was re-made.

As the female was being recovered forward, attempts were being made to recover the male casualty aft by Mechanic Guy. Once his fellow crew had let him go, he had begun to submerge and Dan Guy made the instant decision to go outboard of the guardrails on the port quarter and step onto the lifeboat spray rail. He did not have the opportunity to clip on at this point and just in time managed to grab hold of the male casualty by the scruff of the neck, pulling his head above water whilst holding onto a stanchion with his other hand. He managed to trap the casualty between his legs and shouted to Coxswain Sawyer to clip him on using the lifejacket lifeline. Mechanic Guy and the casualty kept disappearing under water and Coxswain Sawyer, unable to leave the helm, ordered crewman Murphy aft to secure the lifeline, which he did. On speaking to the casualty, Mechanic Guy realised the man was utterly exhausted and he had the feeling that he was on the point of giving up. From his position on the upper steering position, Coxswain Sawyer could not see either Dan or the casualty as they were close to the port quarter. He was aware they were possibly very close to the port propeller and therefore realised he no longer had the port engine available for manoeuvring.

At this point a wave broke through the lifeboat and Mechanic Guy was swept off the spray rail, thankfully his lifeline held, he remained attached to the lifeboat and his lifejacket inflated. He was unable to maintain his grip on the casualty who disappeared under the port quarter. Guy managed to grab hold of him once again but was himself becoming exhausted in the water and was finding it near impossible to keep the casualty’s head above water. Coxswain Sawyer was aware of the difficulty in recovering the two men whilst exposed to the full force of the elements and had decided to seek shelter within the harbour by proceeding astern at slow speed on the starboard engine to a position within the breakwater arms. By this time, the female being safely on board, the foredeck crew had moved aft to assist in the recovery of the two men. Crewman Murphy clipped himself on and stepped onto the spray rail where he took a firm grip of Mechanic Guy.

It then took four men to physically lift the casualty clear of the water, it was not possible to break the aft guard rail as this would have released Mechanic Guy’s lifeline. The casualty was pulled through a gap between the guardrails and laid on deck, by now the lifeboat was in the relative shelter of the breakwater. Coxswain Sawyer managed to turn the lifeboat and head towards the locks. Mechanic Guy was assisted aboard by two crew who sat him down on the aft deck. He had been in the water for almost 20 minutes; he was exhausted, cold and physically shaking. With everyone onboard, Coxswain Sawyer made best speed to the lock entrance. The time was now approximately 1915, the lifeboat having been on scene for three quarters of an hour.

The lifeboat was alongside the lock by 1917 where station honorary medical advisor, Dr Colin McKee examined the two survivors and Mechanic Guy. The lifeboat transited the lock and berthed on the fuelling pontoon where the two survivors were handed into the care of Eastbourne Coastguards and waiting ambulance personnel.

The lifeboat was declared re-fuelled and ready for service at 1922.

During the service, members of both Eastbourne lifeboat station and Eastbourne Coastguard’s proceeded to the beach close to the scene of the service. Loose equipment washed ashore from the yacht was recovered.

The station secretary and other members of Eastbourne lifeboat remained at the station and monitored the service during its execution. The service could be partially seen by the Lock Keepers from their office. During the service, relatives of the yacht crew had heard about the incident and had proceeded to the station where the secretary comforted them.

The yacht Paperchase was eventually recovered by marina staff and now lies ashore within Sovereign Harbour.

The lifeboat and its equipment performed satisfactorily throughout the service.