DAVID GROVES AND ALEX HARVEY
Sailors led a four-hour mission to save 27 men from a burning ship in towering seas, in one of the Royal Navy’s most dramatic rescues.
HMS Argyll was returning to Plymouth following a nine-month tour of duty in the Pacific. The Royal Navy Type 23 Frigate was travelling through a storm in the Bay of Biscay when it received a mayday call from the Grande America, a 28,000-tonne cargo ship which had caught fire 150 miles off the French coast.
Aboard the Argyll, Leading Seaman David Groves and Able Seaman Alex Harvey, volunteered to enter the water in an eight metre rigid inflatable boat. As they were lowered into the six-metre waves, David realised how extreme the situation had become. “One minute you could see a ship on fire, the next it was hidden by a wall of water. And the closer we got, the more engulfed we were in the smoke,” said David, 32, from Taunton in Somerset.
When the pair reached the merchant ship they faced a lengthy wait as the crew struggled to launch their lifeboat – the Grande America’s high side and rough weather ruled out climbing down the ladder and into David and Alex’s inflatable. When the lifeboat eventually launched, it hit the water with such force that the engine was disabled, leaving the craft impossible to manoeuvre and drifting dangerously close to the burning ship.
Realising lives were at stake, David managed to bring his boat nose-to-nose with the lifeboat. With Alex on the bow judging the right moment as the two craft lurched up and down in the swell, four of the merchant crew jumped from a small hatch into Argyll’s boat. Alex, 28, from Hull, said: “It was rough – very rough and as we got near to the ship, it turned out to be a lot worse than we’d imagined it.
“When the first guy jumped I had to grab him to prevent him going overboard. I thought to myself: This is a bit hairy.” No more of the Grande America crew were able to leap between the two boats, and the waves snapped a tow rope, so David used his initiative and skill to nudge the lifeboat half a mile to the Argyll, where sailors and Royal Marines were waiting to haul the exhausted casualties to safety. Commanding Officer of HMS Argyll, Commander Toby Shaughnessy said: “Without doubt this was a near run thing. The conditions were on the limit for recovery and this could just as easily have been a different result.”