On the evening of the 17th of March 1969 at 7.29 pm, the Coastguard telephoned Jackie Groat (Hon Sec) to say that the Liberian registered, Greek owned ship SS lrene was in difficulties 21 miles east of Duncansby Head, later she was found to be to the south of Old Head, South Ronaldsay.
The lifeboat T.G.B was launched from Brims at 8.00pm in a force 9 south-easterly gale which had been blowing for several days making the Pentland Firth extremely rough, visibility was also reduced owing to heavy rain and snow showers.
At 9.07pm the T.G.B radioed the Coastguard telling them that they were 1 mile east of Swona.
At 9.15pm the SS Irene was driven ashore by the south-easterly gale about half a mile from Grimness, South Ronaldsay, the position was radioed to the T.G.B. and was acknowledged at 9.28pm. That was to be the last message ever received from the Longhope lifeboat T.G.B.
The light keepers on the Pentland Skerries saw the lifeboat’s stern light about 9.35pm 1 mile east of the Pentland Skerries battling through mountainous seas. Wick radio called the T.G.B. at 10.10pm. There was no reply and so they repeated the message every five minutes. By this time the Irenewas hard aground near Grimness and the local Coastguard Rescue Team had managed to save the entire crew of the stricken vessel using the breeches-buoy from the land side.
At 10.30pm there was still no reply from the T.G.B. and the coastguards started to fear the worst, the Kirkwall lifeboat Grace Paterson Ritchie (a 70 ft Clyde) which was also on service to the SS Irene was asked to search an area from Grimness to 1 mile east of the Old Head, South Ronaldsay, they did so without success.
At first light on the 18 March a massive search was mounted, which involved the lifeboats from Kirkwall, Stronsay, Stromness and Thurso, with assistance from a helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth and a Shackleton from RAF Kinloss.
At 1.40pm the Thurso lifeboat found the T.G.B. capsized 4 miles south-west of Tor Ness Point (Hoy), and proceeded to tow the upturned Longhope lifeboat to Scrabster Harbour. The boats were escorted by the Stromness lifeboat and reached Scrabster Harbour at 8.55pm. Not one of the seven lifeboatmen onboard the T.G.B. had survived, with the body of the eighth lifeboatman, Assistant Mechanic James Swanson missing.
Coxswain Daniel Kirkpatrick
Second Coxswain James Johnston (son of Mechanic Robert R Johnston)
Bowman Daniel R Kirkpatrick (son of Coxswain Daniel Kirkpatrick )
Mechanic Robert R Johnston
Assistant Mechanic James Swanson
Crew Member Robert Johnston (son of Mechanic Robert R Johnston)
Crew Member John T Kirkpatrick (son of Coxswain Daniel Kirkpatrick)
Crew Member Eric McFadyen
The following interview was between a school pupil doing a project on Longhope Lifeboat and the late Billy Budge who served on the Longhope Lifeboat crew and Mary Harris, then Press Officer for Longhope Lifeboat.
How did it affect Orkney?
Billy and Mary: ‘There are no words except devastated, tragic and terrible disaster and these words don’t even begin to describe the affect.’
What do you remember about it?
Billy: ‘I remember every single thing about it. I was there when they launched and my friend Eric jumped aboard at the last moment and I threw him a lifejacket. We spent all night listening on the radio but there was nothing and by the morning we knew that something was far wrong. At that time I was in the local Coastguards and we went out searching the shore. Everyone was out searching and looking and hoping. We searched until we heard that the lifeboat had been found but it was upturned. It was probably one of the search planes that saw it first. Thurso lifeboat had the horrendous task of retrieving it and towing it back to Scrabster.
Mary: ‘I was living in London then but I remember hearing the news on the radio. Although Mainland Orkney was like a second home I had no connection then with Longhope but Iwas upset for days, I couldn’t understand how that could happen. My father was so shocked he was speechless. It was the only time I ever saw a tear roll down his cheek.
How did it affect the days after it and the long term.
Billy: ‘We were all in a kind of daze. There were funerals and pallbearers to arrange. We don’t talk about it. There was no problem getting a new crew, some were fishermen or connected to the sea. Some weren’t.’
Mary: ‘I can only answer this on what I have heard and read. The disaster touched the hearts of many not only in Orkney but throughout the British Isles and beyond. There was a National Appeal to help the widows and children. Money, clothes, food and toys arrived from all over. The very special link which was formed with Longhope in Gloucestershire played an important role during this time and is still strong today.
I feel it’s just a deep sadness which flows silently and invisibly through the soul of Longhope. We still have a strong bond of friendship with Thurso lifeboat. The older, retired crewmembers, well they can’t talk about it either. They had such a hard job recovering the lifeboat with the men trapped underneath.’
How did it affect you:
A long silence, then Billy said: ‘Life goes on…. it’s too big for words. We’re such a small community and it took so many young men… with mothers, families, wives and young children, oh all the children… left behind.’
Mary: ‘ It affects me more now, living here and being involved with Longhope lifeboat and knowing the folk. It breaks my heart. I understand why they don’t talk about it, you just can’t. I don’t think it’s something that should be investigated too deeply. We remember the event in our own way. We have a striking bronze memorial of a lifeboatman looking out to sea with the men that were lost buried along side. (One man was never found). People go and stand there quietly with them and gaze across to the Pentland Firth or attend to the graves.’
How could have it been avoided?
Billy: ‘No idea. Possibly by having a self righting boat but in that sea, even that may have failed. The first self-righters were not very stable.’
Mary: ‘One shouldn’t look back in retrospect and try to answer this question. There were detailed inquiries carried out by the RNLI and Procurator Fiscal. What happened that night no-one will ever know. I look at the lifeboat crew today, most of them are volunteers and the RNLI is a charity. When their pagers go off the crew stop what they are doing and just go. I don’t think they stand there thinking about it. Speed is essential. It takes a special kind of person to take on this role. Nobody forces them to go out. They don’t regard themselves as heroes, just ordinary men and women. Many have no connections with the sea and they undergo continual training. It’s not easy.
What’s the difference in the lifeboat design since then?
Billy: ‘Oh it’s a totally different world now. It’s unbelievable how much it’s changed in a lifetime. The technology and design. It was just simple in my days, just standard equipment and vessels, radar was a big innovation…….. but the sea’s still the same.‘
Mary: ‘Well, we now have a Tamar all-weather class lifeboat and when they were first brought into service in 2005 they were the most sophisticated and safest lifeboat of the time. She cost £2.6million pounds. You can read all about her fantastic design on the internet. But however much design and health and safety issues improve, however much training, bureaucracy and red tape the crew have to deal with, the result will be the same as it was in the past. When the call comes they will go out and do the best they can. There has always been a lifeboat in Longhope, it is part of life and sadly death here. The Pentland Firth is a notoriously dangerous stretch of water and the lifeboat crew are ready, as they were in the past, to go at anytime and save lives at sea.
Billy Budge joined the Longhope lifeboat on the first boat after the disaster. He later became Coxswain and served for many years after.
In March 2019 the community gathered to commemorate 50 years since the disaster.
images: Longhope Lifeboat Museum Archives / Mary Harris / Andy Fellows / RNLI
film credit: RNLI
audio credit: BBC Radio Orkney