RNLI Spirit: How One Volunteer Overcame Tragedy to Return to the Sea
Tam Fyall’s (59) love affair with the sea started aged 11 with a fishing trip aboard his father’s boat enjoying the waters of the Firth of Forth off the east coast of Scotland. Little did he know that the very thing he fell in love with would take his friends and colleagues in the cruellest of ways
Battling force 10 and 11 gales one October night in 2006, pair trawlers The Meridian and Duthies II were on duty guarding a section of pipeline under construction some 160 miles east of Aberdeen. Aboard the Duthies II was Tam who normally sailed aboard The Meridian but was asked to take charge of The Duthies II that night to cover an absent crew member’s holiday.
At around 10:30pm and with the boats approximately 12 miles apart, Tam received a call from the UK Coastguard to say that The Meridian Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon (EPIRB) had been activated and they could not make contact. Tam tried to reach his colleagues on the radio but to no avail. He and his crew proceeded immediately to their last known position.
An intensive search took place throughout the night with search and rescue personnel from the air and sea swarming to the scene to help locate the trawler and her four crew members.
Tam and his crew were reluctantly stood down from their search and sent back to Peterhead harbour. As they embarked on the long sail back, the news they all had dreaded sadly filtered through to them. A body had been recovered.
Having not slept in days, Tam reluctantly agreed to head to bed where he closed his eyes on the most sombre trip back to Peterhead harbour. He recalls being suddenly awoken with what felt like the boat going over. Tam dashed up to the deck only to find the sea in the most calm and peaceful of states. His confidence was shattered and unimaginable grief had overcome him. On arrival back in the harbour, he dumped his gear in a skip and vowed never to set sail again. His relationship with the sea was over.
The search continued over the coming days but sadly nothing was found - a tragic loss to the local community and the Scottish Fishing Industry.
Tam battled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and struggled to overcome the loss. In 2007, he felt the time was right to get back into work. The role as Harbour Master in neighbouring Pittenweem came up and Tam was successful in his application.
Based onshore, Tam took charge of the day to day running of a busy port of prawn and creel fishermen.
It was soon after Tam got to grips with this new career that his cousin and former Anstruther Lifeboat Second Coxswain Alex Purves discussed the possibility of Tam volunteering in shore based roles of Deputy Launch Authority and Sea Safety Officer at Anstruther RNLI. This was a real challenge for Tam as it would mean talking about safety on the seas that claimed those closest to him.
After a couple of years volunteering ashore, Tam was asked if he would apply his knowledge of the sea afloat as a crew member. Realising he had the chance to make a difference, Tam took the immensely brave decision to join as a crew member aboard Anstruther lifeboat.
Talking about his decision, Tam said: ‘After volunteering with the RNLI in a shore based position, I was asked if I would become a part of the boat crew. I want to help and make a difference as I have seen how perilous the sea can be. I could see how important the RNLI is in the local community and how close the team at Anstruther are. Being part of a close team was what I was used to.’
‘We had such a great team aboard the Meridian and Duthies II that was sadly taken from us. I will never forget Martin, Edward, Ian and Sidney and I am sure they would support me in taking up a role with the RNLI.’
Tam has since moved jobs to work in Anstruther where he oversees a busy leisure port. ‘I still find myself preaching to seafarers on safety, lifejackets and planning. They know to inform me of their intentions before setting sail and when I should expect them back in Anstruther. I have also encouraged the need to take that time to plan before they set off on any trips.’
Tam has now progressed to Deputy Second Coxswain at Anstruther Lifeboat Station. Dedicating his weekdays and evenings to training, Tam also takes duty charge of the 12 metre all-weather lifeboat vessel one weekend a month to lead a crew should they be requested to respond.
‘On coming back into Peterhead that morning in 2006, I never envisaged I would take charge of a lifeboat and her crew at the drop of a hat’, Tam commented. ‘The level of training and commitment given by the RNLI crew has helped me overcome my fears and I have my confidence back.’
With over 300 call outs since Tam took the step to go afloat with Anstruther RNLI back in 2009, Tam has epitomised the RNLI’s value of courage and overcome the challenges he has faced.
What happened that night back in 2006 will always live with him and he takes the memories of his former crew mates with him in each time he boards the lifeboat to help those in need.
Notes to the editor:
PHOTO CREDIT – Sean Malyon Photography
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Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.