Date of Action: 6 October 1990
Date of Award: 20 March 1991
Soon after 4 p.m. a dramatic change in weather conditions led to hurricane force winds springing up from the north along the east coast of Scotland. The coastline between Dunbar and Eyemouth is popular with divers, and it soon became clear to Coastguards that a number of sub aqua enthusiasts had been caught out at sea in the hurricane.
Three lifeboats were alerted, including Eyemouth's relief 44 ft Waveney 44-001 which launched at 4.49 p.m. with Assistant Mechanic James Dougal at the helm. Taking the lifeboat out of the narrow harbour entrance into the face of the 100 knot hurricane was only the first great hazard the Acting Coxswain was to encounter. Twenty foot seas were running into the entrance and crashing over the sea walls. Visibility was virtually non-existent in the rain, spume and spray.
Clear of the dangerous rocks near the harbour entrance, James Dougal headed for St Abbs where a group of divers had been caught in the storm. The lifeboat met seas of 35 ft head on, the Acting Coxswain reducing power as he negotiated each one. The 44 ft boat rolled violently as she drove on, her side decks awash.
By 5.15 p.m. the lifeboat was off St Abbs Harbour, with visibility about 50 yards, wind 90 knots and the seas still breaking at a height of 35 ft over the rocky outcrops. From his position on the harbour wall, the Auxiliary Coastguard in Charge at St Abbs had miraculously spotted two of the divers in the water. He then lost sight of them in the spray and all he could see of the lifeboat was her searchlight beam. With that as his only reference he guided the lifeboat to the scene.
Less than 200 feet from the lifeboat's starboard side lay the Cathedral Rock, the same distance to port jutted the Ebb Can Rocks. Neither were visible and the heavy spray made them undetectable by radar. Still the Acting Coxswain persevered. His crew, lifelines secured, were out on deck scouring the sea for the divers, whom they spotted still conscious and close to a creel buoy.
On the third attempt James Dougal succeeded in bringing the lifeboat close enough for a crew member to throw a heaving line to the divers. Both were able to grab it and they were hauled against the lifeboat's starboard shoulder and then on to the boat.
There were still two divers missing south of St Abbs. Eyemouth lifeboat began a search for them but her Acting Coxswain became concerned about his two survivors who were becoming severely sea sick. However, an attempt to land them at St Abbs had to be abandoned when it became clear that entering the harbour would endanger the lifeboat. Instead the lifeboat continued to search for the other divers until 7 p.m. An attempt was made to winch the two survivors into an RAF helicopter, but the weather forced this attempt to be abandoned too.
By 7.45 p.m. darkness made further searching impossible and Forth Coastguard suspended the operation. The lifeboat headed south for Eyemouth only to find that there was no safe way into the harbour which forced the Coxswain to continue on to Burnmouth. On reaching this destination a power cut had extinguished the harbour leading lights but, thanks to the resourcefulness of local fishermen, car headlights were positioned to guide the lifeboat safely into harbour. Her survivors were landed into the care of the Scottish Ambulance Service.