Originally published in the Guardian on 10 October 1970

10 October 1970: Fraserburgh lifeboat 'had no chance'

The Fraserburgh lifeboat, Duchess of Kent, while a good sea boat, was incapable of withstanding the conditions she met on January 21, when she went to the rescue of the Danish fishing boat Opal, about 35 miles off Fraserburgh, and was capsized by a wave more than 30ft high with the loss of five of the crew of six.

This was claimed at the inquiry at Aberdeen yesterday. During the inquiry, which began on Monday, a considerable amount of evidence had centred on whether or not the stability of the lifeboat had been affected by the installation of a new and lighter engine five years ago.

The Board of Trade had its principal witness, Mr George Thomson, a senior ship surveyor, on the stand yesterday. It was his opinion that the boat did not have a chance against the mass of water that hit her. She would have capsized in the circumstances even with her old engine.

In a force 8 to 9 gale, the type of wave which overturned the lifeboat could be expected to occur within any five-hour period. This meant a lifeboat on a long mission risked capsizing. The risk was so high he would not be prepared to accept it, and he thought any Watson class of lifeboat would almost certainly have overturned in those circumstances.

Mr Thomson said the answer to the problem was to evolve a policy for this class of lifeboat to avoid a repetition of the fate of the Fraserburgh boat. He favoured one co-ordinating authority to receive all the information on a rescue operation and to assess this information. A person in this position would then be able to know how to apply a limit to the activities of boats of the Watson class.

Captain Herbert Pond, a nautical surveyor with the Board of Trade, dealt with figures which showed that five lifeboats had capsized off the east coast of Scotland in the past 17 years with the loss of 23 men. He said these figures would be quite unacceptable for the boats for which the Board of Trade were responsible.

He also favoured a shore-based and co-ordinated authority and said the man in charge should have mandatory power to recall a lifeboat if necessary. When asked under what conditions this might be required, he said one reason might be that other ships had moved into the area and could render assistance more quickly.

The evidence will end on Monday, after which the assessors will visit Buckie Harbour to inspect the damaged lifeboat.



No. 8051

R.N.L.I THE DUCHESS OF KENT (O.N. 186080) [this number is incorrect, ON908 was the RNLI no. this could have been here registration No MRW]

In the matter of a Formal Investigation held at the Sheriff Court House, Aberdeen, on the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 12th days of October, 1970, before Frederick W. F. O'Brien, QC, Sheriff Principal, assisted by Mr. A. R. Elder, Professor J. F. C. Conn, DSc, CEng, MRINA, and Mr. L. A. Clegg, DSC, DA, into the circumstances attending the capsizing of the R.N.L.B. The Duchess of Kent (O.N. 186080) in a position approximately 58° 07'N 01° 07'W with the loss of five lives on the 21st January, 1970.

The Court having carefully inquired into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds for the reasons stated in the Annex hereto, that the R.N.L.B. The Duchess of Kent (O.N. 186080) capsized at 1117 GMT in a position approximately 58°07'N 01°07'W with the loss of five lives on the 21st January, 1970 and the cause was that she was suddenly overwhelmed by a breaking wave of approximately 30-40 feet in height.

The Court orders that the Board of Trade do pay to The Royal National Life-boat Institution the restricted sum of six hundred guineas being one half of the expense to which they have been put by reason of this investigation.

Dated this nineteenth day of October, 1970


We concur in the above Report.


Assessors. L. A. CLEGG

Annex to the Report to read click NEXT