The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

History of the Stromness Lifeboat

The RNLI opened a lifeboat station in Stromness in 1867 after the emigrant ship Albion was wrecked on the island of Graemsay on 1 January 1866. Eleven lives were lost, including one Graemsay man, who attempted to rescue the crew and passengers.

Following the arrival of Stromness’s first lifeboat, the Saltaire, a pulling/sailing boat, costing £280, a boathouse/slipway had to be erected. Due to the strong tides in the area, the boat was kept in a position where it could be launched at all states of tide. Its position also saved crew from rowing unnecessary distances, as the boathouse was in the harbour area.
The first boathouse was situated at Ness, but it proved difficult to launch the boat at certain stages of tide and weather conditions. A new slipway/boathouse was constructed within the shelter of the harbour and was completed in 1902. The Saltaire was replaced by a larger boat, the Good Shepherd, a 14-oared 42-foot self-righter, costing £519, arriving on station in June 1891.
In 1909 one of the first motor lifeboats, the John A Hay, arrived on station in Stromness. She served Stromness for 19 years.
John A Hay was replaced by a larger petrol-engined boat called the JJKSW. This was a 51-foot Barnett (Stromness) class, arriving on station 3 March 1928. In her time she saved 139 lives from shipwreck. The boathouse and slipway had to be enlarged and made higher to accommodate this boat. On 6 June 1928 HRH Prince George christened the new boat before travelling to Longhope to name their new lifeboat, the KTJS.
After a period of 27 years the RNLI decided to replace the lifeboat with a 52-foot Barnett, diesel-powered vessel, arriving on station in May 1955, The Archibald and Alexander M Paterson. In January 1961 a wheelhouse was built over the open steering position. In early 1970 the boat was re-engined with more powerful Ford engines and a radar was fitted.
In the 1980s GRP (glass-reinforced plastic) hulls were quickly replacing the traditional wooden boats, which led the RNLI to place a 52-foot GRP Arun class lifeboat on a swinging mooring within Stromness Harbour. Named Joseph Rothwell Sykes and Hilda M, she arrived in October 1984.
This represented a big transformation in both lifeboats and the equipment carried aboard, which now included a daughter boat. Engines onboard the lifeboat were 2 x 500hp Caterpillar diesels, giving the boat a maximum speed of 18 knots, twice the speed of any previous boats at this station. Fuel consumption rose from six gallons to 50 gallons-per-hour.
Greater protection for the crew and quicker response times were probably the main assets this boat provided, together with great sea-keeping properties and modern aids to navigation.

In June 1997 the local committee was informed that a new 17-metre Severn Class lifeboat was to be placed on station the following year.

Built at a cost of approximately £1,750,000 and named Violet, Dorothy & Kathleen, this was yet another huge leap in technology. Built of FRC (fibre-reinforced composite) and fitted with two 1200hp Caterpillar engines, it gave a maximum speed of 25 knots and a longer operative area. Equipped with the latest marine electronic equipment and even more protection, comfort and safety than the Arun, this boat proved to be well trusted in its sea-keeping capabilities and manoeuvrability.

Since the establishment of Stromness Lifeboat Station, 14 coxswains have been appointed to the responsible job, and since motorisation nine mechanics have been appointed as full-time employees of the RNLI.

Coxswains and crews are all volunteers at this station. While most of the coxswains and crew members were once connected to the fishing industry, with the decline in fishing, crews now come from all walks of life.

Stromness lifeboat call-outs

Lifeboat call-outs from Stromness have varied greatly, both in weather conditions and distance travelled to casualties. The number of services is too great to give details on, but the following are just a few examples.

The first mission the lifeboat launched was on 6 October 1868, when she escorted the schooner Victor to the safety of Stromness Harbour after getting into difficulties in Hoy Sound.

On 7 December 1898 the lifeboat launched to go to the aid of the Boston trawler Shark, in difficulty to the west of Hoy. Suffering exhaustion and severe cold in appalling weather conditions, one of the lifeboat crew, George Campbell, died as a result some time later.

The first award made by the RNLI for saving lives from a shipwreck in Stromness did not go to a lifeboat crewman but to Robert Leask and his young son, who saved one of three people whose boat had capsized off Stromness on 28 November 1872. Robert Leask was awarded the Silver Medal and his son received the institution's thanks on vellum.

On 11 December 1907 a Hull trawler was wrecked near Breckness in heavy seas, resulting in four lives being lost and five saved. Cox'n Robert Greig was awarded the Silver Medal by the RNLI for his outstanding seamanship and courage shown on this service.

The lifeboat was called to aid the Grimsby trawler Freesia, which sank near Costa Head on 1 January 1922. After a journey of nearly 25 miles in horrendous weather, the lifeboat arrived on the scene and rescued two men from a make-shift raft. Sadly, the remaining nine crew members perished. For this service Cox'n William Johnston was awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal and monetary awards were presented to him and to the other crew members.

On 4 October 1924 the lifeboat was called out to assist the Hull trawler Hessonite ashore, below 160-foot cliffs at Birsay. In dense fog, Cox'n William Johnston located the casualty and, with his crew, saved her crew of ten stranded fishermen. The cox'n received two letters of appreciation from the RNLI and from the survivors.

On 25 October 1927 the Hull trawler Amethyst went ashore near Houton Head in Scapa Flow, becoming a total wreck. The Stromness lifeboat rescued all 10 men from the casualty in a south-westerly gale and torrential rain.

On 14 February 1929 the Grimsby trawler Carmania II ran ashore on the Kirk Rocks in Hoy Sound in heavy snow and very heavy seas. Stromness lifeboat saved all 12 members of the crew from certain death. Cox'n Johnston received his second Bronze medal for this service, along with monetary awards, also granted to the crew.

On 28 March 1930, as there was no lifeboat in Shetland at the time, the Stromness lifeboat was called out to go to the aid of the Aberdeen trawler Ben Doran, which had struck the Vee Skerries, to the west of Shetland. After a long and arduous journey all that could be seen were the masts of the ill-fated trawler. In total the lifeboat covered 320 miles and spent some 55 hours away from station on this horrific mission.

Thirteen days later, the lifeboat was again tasked to another call in Shetland when the SS St Sunniva grounded on the East side at Mousa. Without radios it was impossible to contact the lifeboat to inform the coxswain that all passengers and crew were safely ashore. The lifeboat motored all the way to Shetland (120 miles) to be informed all was well and the lifeboat was stood down. On this occasion the crew was away from station for 36 hours.

Various great services were carried out over the ensuing years while Coxswains Linklater, Greig and Sinclair were in charge. During the war years all calls in darkness had to be carried out without lights.

On 22 March 1953 the Grimsby trawler Leicester City ran ashore on the west side of Hoy in dense fog, resulting in both the Stromness and Thurso lifeboats being launched as the position of the trawler was uncertain. The Stromness lifeboat picked up four survivors from a liferaft and proceeded to land them onshore. One later died of exhaustion. Ten other survivors had managed to scramble ashore near Braebuster and were landed in Stromness by the lifeboat. Unfortunately, two of these men died soon after. The search for the remaining crew members resumed, but only the bodies were found by the two lifeboats. Coxswains W Sinclair and A Macintosh were both awarded the thanks of the RNLI on vellum for this prolonged service.

On 25 January 1965 Stromness lifeboat responded to a mayday call from the Hull trawler Kingston Torquoise. She was sinking near the North Shoal after striking it. Nineteen men were recovered from liferafts and brought back to Stromness. Sadly, one of the crewmen was never found.

Cox'n Alfie Sinclair and his crew were called out on 18 March 1969 on a mission that stunned people in Orkney and far beyond. The previous evening the Longhope lifeboat T.G.B. had been overwhelmed in mountainous seas, while going to the aid of the Liberian ship Irene to the East side of South Ronaldsay. Thurso, Stronsay and Kirkwall Lifeboats all joined in the search for their comrades. The Thurso Lifeboat found the capsized hull, and escorted by the other boats, towed the T.G.B. to Scrabster. All eight men from the Longhope lifeboat were lost.


On 21 December 1974 the Longhope and Stromness lifeboats were launched to go to the aid of the Belgian trawler Lans, grounded below the sheer Berry Head on the south-west of Hoy. Both lifeboats made unsuccessful attempts to get close to the wreck. One attempt resulted in crewman M Flett of Stromness receiving severe arm injuries when the anchor winch broke due to a particular heavy swell. All crew were saved by an RAF helicopter under the command of Dave Cosbie, who later lived in Stromness until his untimely death in April 2009.

Early on the morning of 17 June 1992, the lifeboat was tasked to go to the aid of a replica Hebridean longship, the Aileach, which had suffered steering failure in a heavy swell 40 miles North of Cape Wrath, approximately 70 miles from Stromness. With the boat fully rigged, it was impossible to lift the crew by helicopter. The lifeboat's Y Boat was used to transfer the crew of nine to the lifeboat. A tow was then attached, and with a long, slow tow ahead, the boats headed for Stromness. After approximately three hours the tow broke but with Cox'n M Flett's good seamanship, and crewmember D Adam's agility, a tow was re-established. The two boats reached the safety of Stromness Harbour at 9pm. Cox'n Flett and crew members each received a letter of thanks from the Chairman of the RNLI for this service.

The Westray trawler Keila ran aground in Marwick Bay on 21 December 1995, with seven crew members aboard, and required assistance immediately. The lifeboat launched at 6.45am and reached the casualty at 7.35am. Several attempts to free the casualty were made, all without success, although keeping a line connected to the vessel prevented her from driving further onto the reefs. At 11am another trawler relieved the lifeboat, allowing her to return to Stromness to refuel. The lifeboat returned to the scene when the tide was flowing and attached another tow to yet another trawler, again without success. A tug was called in from Scapa Flow, which arrived and connected a line. After another unsuccessful attempt, the lifeboat returned to base to await the next high tide. The following morning further attempts were made, this time successful. The tug towed the Keila to Stromness, escorted by the lifeboat, arriving at11.45am.

At 1.02pm on 26 April 2002 the lifeboat slipped moorings to go to the aid of the fishing boat Faith Ann, which had lost power at a position approximately 50 miles south-west of Stromness. At the launching site the wind was near north-west storm force, but it was only after leaving the shelter of the harbour, and proceeding out of Hoy Sound, that the real force of the wind and massive seas were felt. This resulted in the lifeboat having to reduce speed to 5-10 knots at times. This severe weather continued throughout the passage to the casualty, which took approximately five hours.

A towline was connected after tricky attempts were made by Cox'n John Banks, and the perseverance of his crew, to keep the lifeboat from being severely damaged in the heavy seas. Rather than risk the horrendous conditions in Hoy Sound, it was decided the casualty would be towed to Scrabster. The tow rope broke six times during the passage and became so damaged that the Thurso Lifeboat, which had a serviceable rope, was called out. Once the Thurso Lifeboat connected a tow, the Stromness lifeboat escorted both boats to the shelter of Scrabster where a line was passed from the Stromness Lifeboat to assist docking the casualty. The Stromness crew rested in Thurso before returning to station, arriving at 11.15am on 27 April. Cox'n Banks was awarded a Service Vellum and the crew received vellum certificates for this service.

At 6.25am on 13 November 2006 Shetland Coast Guard informed the Stromness Launching Authority that the cargo vessel Fri Stream, with six crew aboard, had lost power 12.5 miles west-south-west of the Brough Head, but was not in immediate danger at that point. However, the coxswain and mechanic were put on immediate alert. At 9.44am the vessel's drift rate had increased and the lifeboat launched at 9.55am to stand by the casualty, awaiting the arrival of a vessel capable of towing the casualty.

The weather was poor, with a west-south-west gale blowing, accompanied with a heavy swell and very rough seas. A tow was eventually established by the oil supply vessel Edda Frigg at noon, with a 55-knot wind and squally showers. The tow proceeded to the Westray Firth and down to the more sheltered waters at Deer Sound. The Kirkwall Lifeboat helped to escort the vessel through the North Isles channels. Once the casualty was safely anchored the Stromness Lifeboat returned to station, arriving back at 8.10pm.

An unusual rescue

An unusual request for help was made to Stromness Lifeboat Station in the early afternoon of 4 June 1996 when a call came to rescue a calf that was in the sea. On reaching the scene, a small Y-class inflatable was launched. The crew succeeded in getting the animal on board and headed back to harbour where the calf was landed.

© Stewart Taylor DLA, Stromness Lifeboat Management Group