Gone but not forgotten

Fifty years ago, five lifeboat crew lost their lives when the Fraserburgh lifeboat capsized in heavy seas, while attempting to rescue a Danish fishing boat. This is the story of the Duchess of Kent’s final fateful launch.
In calmer waters before the tragedy, the lifeboat Duchess of Kent

Photo: RNLI

In calmer waters before the tragedy, the lifeboat Duchess of Kent

Taking on water 

When seawater seeped into the engine room of the Danish fishing boat Opal, the fishermen reacted initially with concern but not alarm. They were on their way towards the Fladen fishing grounds of the North Sea – and their livelihoods depended on successfully completing trips like these. By 5am the next morning, the trickle had become a flood. With the Opal’s bilge and auxiliary pumps out of action all night long, the water level in the engine room had risen dangerously high. Fearing now for his boat and crew, the Opal’s skipper radioed for help. 

In Fraserburgh, the early morning sky was still inky black. Schoolboy Billy Watson, 14, was on his paper round when he saw a flash then heard a bang. ‘Two rockets and a flare at 6am,’ recalls Billy, now 64. ‘It was the maroons signalling the lifeboat was about to launch.’ 

As Coxswain John Stephen and the crew converged on Fraserburgh’s South Basin, last-minute efforts were made – unsuccessfully – to find a pump to put onboard.

By now, the fishing boat’s engine room was swamped and the engine cut out. Powerless in a force 6 or 7 near gale and with breaking 5m waves, the Opal’s fate was suddenly no longer in the fishermen’s hands. 

The lifeboat Duchess of Kent launched at 7.34am, after Wick radio relayed a Mayday signal from the fishing boat. The crew faced a 3½-hour struggle to reach Opal in tumultuous seas. The wind was freshening all the time, now gale force 8 or 9 with waves reaching up to 10m. 

A Shackleton aircraft reported seeing Opal and other vessels in the vicinity shortly before 10am.

 The damaged hull of the ill-fated lifeboat Duchess of Kent

Photo: RNLI

The damaged hull of the ill-fated lifeboat Duchess of Kent

Disaster strikes 

The Duchess of Kent reached the fishing boat at around 11am. Radio reports came in during the day as the residents of Fraserburgh listened in anxiously. 

There are conflicting reports about exactly what was happening on scene before the lifeboat’s final moments. According to some eye-witnesses, the Opal was already under tow. Whatever the circumstances, the sea soon dealt a deadly blow. As John Stephen and his crew attempted to manoeuvre into position, they were caught by a huge wave across their bow. The wave lifted the lifeboat into the air before cartwheeling it bow over stern then thumping it back down on the water upside down. 

Miraculously, Jackson Buchan, who was acting as lookout on the deck when the wave struck, escaped. Thrown clear by the boat’s motion, he survived by swimming back and scrambling onto the upturned hull. He was later rescued by a Russian trawler. Four of the brave crew were trapped inside the upturned hull – John Stephen, James Buchan, William Hadden and James RS Buchan. The body of a fifth, Frederick Kirkness, was never found. 

The crew of one of the vessels at the scene – Victor Kingisepp – made a desperate bid to recover the Duchess of Kent and save the crew. It took them 3 hours to right the lifeboat, and by this time all hope of rescuing John Stephen and his men had evaporated. The Victor Kingisepp’s crew began the grim business of towing the salvaged lifeboat to shore. 

The memorial statue erected in 2010 is a constant reminder of the brave lifeboat heroes

Photo: RNLI/Billy Watson

The memorial statue erected in 2010 is a constant reminder of the brave lifeboat heroes

The Buckie lifeboat took over the tow, and the bodies that had been recovered finally arrived in Buckie Harbour at 5.40pm, some 34 hours after the Duchess of Kent had set out on its perilous journey from Fraserburgh the previous day. 

The Queen sent her condolences and the skipper and crew of Opal attended the funerals on 26 January. The whole town was in mourning and the tragedy rekindled memories of previous lifeboat tragedies. Only 17 years earlier, six lives were lost when the lifeboat John & Charles Kennedy capsized. And in 1919, the lifeboat Lady Rothes capsized with the loss of two crew. 

The Inquiry concluded that no blame could be attributed to the coxswain and crew, or to the RNLI, and recorded that ‘the Court tenders its sympathy and condolences to the relatives of the men who gave their lives so unselfishly and courageously.’ 

Paperboy Billy now volunteers as the station’s Lifeboat Press Officer and is one of the launch authorities. He recalls the moment the news broke. ‘Our teacher came into class and said “the lifeboat’s just capsized”. We all went quiet, we were stunned. We hoped everything would be OK. 

‘But later in the day we found out things weren’t OK. I remember hearing that teachers told my friend Billy, who’s dad was on the crew. With our lifeboat crew gone, the life force of the town, its sparkle, had been taken away.’ 

Although the lifeboat Duchess of Kent was recovered, it was the end of its days. It would be another 8 years before a lifeboat sailed from Fraserburgh again.

Fraserburgh Coxswain/Mechanic Vic Sutherland

Photo: RNLI/Billy Watson

Fraserburgh Coxswain/Mechanic Vic Sutherland

‘You’re at the mercy of the sea’

Vic Sutherland, Fraserburgh Coxswain/Mechanic, says: ‘Conditions must have been very bad. There was a heavy, heavy broken swell. Even getting out of the harbour entrance in a south-south-east wind is difficult. It would have been a mammoth effort. Past Cairnbulg Beacon – a reef 1½ miles out – you’re at the mercy of the sea in weather like that. They didn’t have the same navigation equipment we have nowadays. They would have relied on their experience as lifeboatmen and fishermen. The disaster is something that’s never been forgotten. It’s a huge part of the station history. It’s a massive price for the station to have paid.’

Fraserburgh lifeboat crew next to the memorial

Photo: RNLI/Billy Watson

The disaster is something today's crew will never forget

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