Guernsey lifeboat's 1981 rescue of Bonita crew remembered

Artist's impression of the rescue of the Bonita with Guernsey's lifeboat in the foreground The hurricane force winds hampered the rescue attempts as the Bonita listed to 45 degrees as its cargo of fertiliser shifted in the hold

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The rescue of 29 people from a boat in the English Channel 30 years ago has been remembered with a specially-commissioned film.

MV Bonita, an 8,000 tonne Ecuadorian cargo boat sailing from Hamburg to Panama, was caught in a hurricane on 13 December 1981, when it sent out a distress signal.

Guernsey's lifeboat was among those called to the scene and now the RNLI has had the stories of the rescue - during which two Bonita crew members were fatally injured - adapted for the screen.

It features John Webster, who was part of the rescue crew on board the Sir William Arnold, Guernsey's Arun Class lifeboat.

He said: "We launched a little after 12:30, the crew were actually summoned down to the harbour to move the lifeboat because it was blowing a gale.

Start Quote

It was down to us to do what we could”

End Quote John Webster RNLI Crew Member

"There was a navy boat tied up on one of the berths and they thought it was going to break adrift and damage the lifeboat.

"While we were preparing to move the boat we were told there was a ship in trouble mid-Channel.

"It was about 16:30-16:40 when we got there and it was laying on its side."

He said that when they arrived a rescue helicopter had already taken four people from the boat.

"But then the wind had strengthened and it got rougher and the helicopter was struggling, so it was down to us to do what we could," said Mr Webster.

RNLI crew members and a member of the Bonita crew feature in the film. Copyright RNLI

The ship's complement of 31 included four children and two women, the families of the captain and first engineer.

The children were the first off the ship, with two in the helicopter.

"[However] one chap in his haste to get off was swept off the back of the boat and one chap jumped too soon, tripped and hit the deck of the lifeboat quite hard and we did the best we could for him but he died when he got to hospital," said Mr Webster.

He was among the crew members who were awarded bronze medals by the RNLI for their part in the rescue.

Second Coxswain Peter Bougourd, Mechanic Robert Vowles and Crew Members Alan Martel, Peter Bisson, John Bougourd and Richard Hamon were the other recipients while Coxswain Michael Scales was presented with a gold medal.

Eleanor Driscoll, the film's director, said: "We couldn't reconstruct it, it was far too dangerous for that.

  • The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) was founded in 1824
  • Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the British Isles
  • It operates more than 230 lifeboat station
  • The charity depends on donations to fund its rescue service

"Getting the memories of the day on film and releasing it to the public is wonderful. We want to do them proud."

Also included in the film is John Aicher, who was the chief engineer of the MV Bonita.

Ms Driscoll said: "It's his testimony really that makes the film very, very poignant, he talks about how he felt he had died three times that day. There were times he just wanted to end the nightmare."

She said news of the rescue was "overshadowed by the Penlee lifeboat disaster only six days later".

The Solomon Browne lifeboat had launched in similar conditions after a mayday from the 300-tonne coaster Union Star, which had foundered against the Cornish cliffs.

However, the lifeboat was lost, with no survivors from either it or the Union Star. It was the worst disaster in the recent history of the RNLI.

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