HMS Argyll rescues all 27 crew from blazing ship in Bay of Biscay

HMS Argyll left Gibraltar on the afternoon of Saturday 9th March on the final leg of a nine-month deployment to the Asia Pacific. While crossing the Bay of Biscay she was called upon to rescue the crew of a burning container ship MV Grande America.

The crew of HMS Argyll worked for 8 hours and saved every soul on board after responding to a mayday from the 28,000-tonne merchant ship about 150 miles southwest of Brest. The crew were fighting a losing battle against the flames and were abandoning ship into 5m to 6m seas at night. When they did, all 27 crammed aboard the lifeboat which smashed into the heavy seas as it launched, damaging the craft which was unable to make headway.

Despite very difficult sea conditions, Argyll succeeded in launching her sea boat which nudged the lifeboat against the frigate’s side so the Grande America’s crew could be brought aboard. In the heavy seas the vessels were rolling at 30 degrees which made it extremely hairy getting the sailors safely on board. Royal Marines were on the ropes hauling people up, the sea boat was pushing the lifeboat against Argyll.

Sea boat holding the lifeboat against the frigate’s side so the crew could be brought aboard.

The 27 sailors rescued are being taken to the French port of Brest. The frigate’s Weapon Engineer Officer (WEO), Lt Cdr Dave Tetchner said none suffered life-threatening injuries but some would require hospital treatment and all were stunned by their ordeal. “It was pretty awful for them – they’d had to fight a fire in dreadful seas. Every one of them suffered smoke inhalation. Then they faced the prospect of abandoning ship and then their lifeboat failed. You see container ships like this every day when you’re sailing around the world. What you do not see is one in flames – it was a dreadful sight.” MV Grande America was still on fire when HMS Argyll left the merchant ship around 5am.

Lt Cdr Tetchner said the manner in which the 200 sailors and Royal Marines aboard HMS Argyll responded to the incident had been exemplary.“You couldn’t single any one individual out – the way the whole ship responded was magnificent and demonstrated how good our training is and how every person on board reacted: the sea boat crew and the seamanship specialists, the Royal Marines getting stuck in, the bridge team handling the ship, the communicators co-ordinating things, the doctor, medics and stewards treating people and the chefs cooking up beans on toast in the middle of the night.”

The Commanding Officer of HMS Argyll, Commander Toby Shaughnessy said “I am incredibly proud of my Ship’s Company and the way they performed in this rescue effort in the most challenging of conditions. Without doubt this was a near run thing. The conditions were on the limit for recovery and this could just as easily been a different result. It was an exceptional team effort and there’s a great feeling on board after a successful result – everyone was saved.”

MV Grande America seen in happier times at Falmouth. She is an Italian-flagged ro-ro container ship. She was en route from Germany to Morocco when fire broke out in containers at around 1900. Unable to contain the fire, the decision to abandon was made at 0100 the ship stopped and started to drift.

HMS Argyll is due home in Devonport on Friday.