North West Wales

Anglesey lifeboat crews remember stricken Nafsiporos rescue

Moelfre Coxswain Dic Evans with the rescued crew of the Nafsiporos Image copyright Liverpool Daily Post & Echo
Image caption Moelfre Coxswain Dic Evans, who died in 2001, with the rescued crew of the Nafsiporos

As a storm raged, their engine failed, and they drifted dangerously towards the rocks of north Anglesey, the crew of the Nafsiporos Greek cargo ship were losing hope of ever surviving.

But, battling waves as big as houses, the crews of the Holyhead and Moelfre lifeboats made it to the stricken ship.

Now, 50 years on the RNLI marked one of the most remarkable rescues in its 192-year history.

Crew members reunited at an event on Friday to remember the rescue.

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Media captionAnestis Rokopoulos says he is alive because of the Holyhead and Moelfre lifeboat crews

Graham Drinkwater, Eric Jones, Jackie Hughes, Will Jones and Brian Stewart - five of the Anglesey crew who braved the conditions back on 2 December, 1966 - were guests of honour at the event in Holyhead.

In a video message played to them, one of the rescued Greek sailors gave thanks to the rescuers for saving his life.

The Nafsiporos' Second Officer Anestis Rokopoulos, now 73, said: "My only message is 'thank you'. I am alive only because of these people. I make a family and I make grandchildren only because of these people."

"We had no control and no steering. The rocks looked like knives. Then from the depths of the sea came these boats and we said, 'They have come for us'," he said.

Image copyright John Cave
Image caption The rescuers received awards for their efforts from the RNLI at Friday's event
Image copyright RNLI
Image caption Nafsiporos' Second Officer Anestis Rokopoulos with his family

All 17 crew on board the Holyhead and Moelfre lifeboats were awarded rare medals for gallantry, in an operation that involved three lifeboats over 24 hours.

First to the rescue was the Douglas RNLI lifeboat, under Coxswain Robert Lee, which launched at 08:30 GMT to chase the Nafsiporos as the storm drove her across the sea.

Although a Shackleton aircraft circling above the ship was able to give its position, volunteers on the Douglas boat never saw the vessel, as the bad weather reduced visibility to less than 460m (1,500ft).

Meanwhile, Lt Comm Harold Harvey, RNLI North West's lifeboats inspector, volunteered his services and the Holyhead lifeboat St Cybi was launched at 10:30.

After three hours of searching, the Holyhead crew reached the stricken freighter, which was just eight miles (13km) from the Anglesey coast.

Image copyright Nathan Williams

The waves were 10m (35ft) high and the Nafsiporos was rolling and being lifted high in the sea, its huge propellers churning in the air above the heads of the lifeboat crew.

Holyhead crewman Graham Drinkwater was just 19 at the time.

"I always remember the first moment we launched because that was my first time down the slipway," he said.

"Then the actual trip out from the lifeboat station to the area of the casualty was fantastic. Talk about a rollercoaster. I mean, you haven't seen anything 'til you've been out on that."

Mr Drinkwater, who went on to become lifeboat operations manager at Holyhead, added: "I remember the first moment I saw the ship. It was so massive compared to our boat. I got a bit apprehensive at that moment.

"We missed the first time, went round again, had a massive collision with the side of the Nafsiporos and then we were alongside."

Image copyright Nathan Williams
Image caption Five surviving Holyhead RNLI lifeboat crew from the Nafsiporos rescue

It was now gone 16:00 and the sun had set.

One of the freighter's lifeboats had come loose and was swinging, making it difficult for her rescuers to get anywhere near her.

The Greek crewmen on board had to climb down a ladder on the side of the ship, dodging the swinging pendulum of their own lifeboat, and then leap to the RNLI boat, which was also being lifted and dropped by the sea.

Holyhead Second Coxswain William Jones said: "The rise and fall between the ship and lifeboat was enormous. One moment we were looking up at her and the next we were in line with her deck, a matter of around 20 feet or more."

Five crewmen made it to safety, but then the Nafsiporos' lifeboat fell crashing on to the Holyhead boat, damaging it and forcing the crew to withdraw.

Image copyright RNLI

The Moelfre lifeboat had already been out since 07:00, assisting two other vessels struggling in the storm.

The crew had barely got back to the station when they were asked to launch again to go to the aid of the Nafisiporos.

Coxswain Dic Evans, who died in 2001, managed to manoeuvre his lifeboat alongside the Nafsiporos.

He pulled another 10 of the Nafsiporos' crew on to the lifeboat's deck, while four refused to abandon ship.

Image copyright Nathan Williams
Image caption Holyhead crewman Graham Drinkwater was just 19 at the time of the rescue

Survivor John Patsoulas later remembered the Moelfre lifeboat crew standing in formation on the lifeboat's decks, linking their arms shoulder to shoulder, waiting to receive the sailors.

He and the other men rescued recalled lifeboatman David Evans, Coxswain Evans' son, as a "bear of a man… big, strong and powerful", who grabbed the sailors and tossed them into the lifeboat "like sacks of corn".

The Moelfre boat was badly damaged and without electrics and lighting, but set course for Holyhead to bring the 10 survivors to shore.

By the time they arrived on land, Coxswain Evans, then aged 61, had been at an open wheel exposed to the hurricane conditions for nearly 13 hours without a break.

The Holyhead crew paused only to have a cup of tea, then launched again to stand by the Nafsiporos through the night until a Dutch tug towed it, and its remaining crew, back to Liverpool the following morning.

Despite the dangerous conditions and near-misses, there were no fatalities or casualties.

Mr Harvey said: "We were all exhausted after 22 hours at sea, and during the night following the rescue many thoughts and silent prayers occupied our minds.

"Once ashore, the rum came out. We were all proud and grateful men, speaking little and bound by the experience of such extreme lifeboat drama and action."

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