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The loss of the Longhope Lifeboat

The Longhope Lifeboat Disaster

On 17 March 1969, the Siberian ship Irene was making her way from Granton to Norway, with 17 crew on board, when she radioed for help saying she was having difficulties on the east side of Orkney. She gave her position as being 18 miles off South Ronaldsay but she was in fact only three miles off the east coast.

The weather conditions were dreadful, she was struggling in a Force 9 gale and the waves were reported to be 60-feet high. She set off some flares, which were seen by people on South Ronaldsay, and, by the time the Irene had run aground on the shore of Grimness, people were already waiting to assist her. A rocket was fired to her and all the crew were brought safely ashore using a breeches buoy.  This should have been a story with a safe and happy ending but, unfortunately, the Irene was responsible for one of the worst tragedies to occur in the history of the lifeboat service.

At 7.29pm the Auxiliary Coastguard contacted RNLI honorary secretary Jackie Groat to tell him that the Irene was in difficulty and was lying five miles east of Halcro Head, South Ronaldsay. The Longhope Lifeboat T.G.B. (thought to be named after the mysterious donor who funded it) was launched and made her way into the Pentland Firth.

The gale, heavy swell and rough sea made the going hard. Rain and snow flurries reduced the visibility considerably. At 8.40pm the lifeboat was three miles south-east of Cantick Head and by 9.07pm she was a mile east of Swona. At 9.35pm the principal keeper saw the lifeboat north of the Cantick Head Lighthouse, this was to be the last sighting of her.

A little after 10pm the Kirkwall Coastguard asked Wick radio to inform the T.G.B. that it was almost impossible to get alongside the Irene. The Kirkwall lifeboat, the Grace Paterson Ritchie, was also called out and she reached the scene around 11.15pm. She was asked to rendezvous with the T.G.B. and fired a parachute flare but received no reply.   

By now there was growing concern for the Longhope lifeboat. She had not responded to radio signals or flares. As soon as daylight broke the following morning the Grace Paterson Ritchie, along with the Stronsay, Thurso and Stromness lifeboats, all searched for the vessel. In addition, a helicopter from Lossiemouth and a Shackleton aircraft from Kinloss were also carrying out an air search.

At 1.40pm the crew aboard the Thurso lifeboat spotted the missing boat, upturned, four miles south-west of Tor Ness. The feelings of the crew can only be imagined.

The boat was towed to Scrabster Harbour and the grim task of looking for bodies was undertaken. Only seven of the eight crew men were found in the boat. The Coxswain, Dan Kirkpatrick, was still at the helm and it was believed the missing man, James Swanson, was lost through the door or was lost overboard. There was extensive damage to the hull.

The coffins of the seven lifeboat men were carried back across the Pentland Firth to Longhope pier on the Kirkwall Lifeboat Grace Paterson Ritchie. This would have been a heartbreaking sight for the families waiting on the pier for their loved ones to ‘come home’.

The T.G.B. was crewed by:

Dan Kirkpatrick – Coxswain, father of Daniel and John

James Johnston – 2nd Coxswain and son of Mechanic Robert Johnston

Daniel Kirkpatick – Bowman and son of Dan Kirkpatrick

Robert R Johnston – Mechanic and father of James and Robert

Robert Johnston – Crew member and son of Robert Johnston, mechanic

John T Kirkpatrick – Crew member and son of Dan Kirkpatrick

Eric McFadyen – Crew member

James Swanson – Assistant mechanic

The disaster was a terrible blow for the community of Brims. Thirty people lived here and the disaster had taken a man from every home. Margaret Kirkpatrick had lost her husband Dan and sons Daniel and John. Maggie Johnston had lost her husband Robert and sons James and Robert.

It was a terrible tragedy and the sadness was felt not only in Orkney but worldwide. A special appeal for the families was launched by the Lord Lieutenant of Orkney and more than £100,000 was raised in just a few weeks.

The funeral service was held on 22 March at Walls Old Parish Church.

An inquiry into the disaster found that the seven men had died from drowning. It is thought that the boat had capsized after being overwhelmed by "very high seas and maelstrom conditions". There was no evidence to suggest negligence.

On 9 August 1970 a bronze statue of a lifeboat man gazing out to sea was unveiled by HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. It stands in Osmondwall Cemetery at the head of the graves of the eight men. The memorial overlooks the sea and is a constant reminder of the courage and bravery of all the men and women who risk their lives at sea to save others.

Memorial to the eight lifeboatmen. The plaque at the base reads: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his fellow men”