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Collision at the Varne

LV21 crew member Brian Packham recounts the events of Sunday June 28th 1981 when LV21 was involved in a collision with the Ore Meteor.

LV21 damaged on the Varne station

The ‘Ore Meteor’, which was being towed by the tug ‘Suzanne M’, struck the LV21, which was on the ‘Varne’ station. The collision occurred between 17:00 hrs & 17:30 hrs on the evening of Sunday June 28th 1981. The weather at the time was, North Easterly wind force 6 -7, on a South Westerly tide, with good visibility and a moderate to rough sea.

I was sitting in the crew mess room having a cup of tea. I had come off watch at 06:00 hrs in the morning following the ‘middle watch’ (midnight to 06:00 hrs). The watch system used on the Varne station was six hours on watch, followed by twelve hours off. This meant I was due to take over the watch again at 18:00 hrs.

At around 16:45 hrs Denny James, the Lightsman I was due to relieve, came into the mess room. He said “Oh you’re already up. Come and look at this tow coming down.” I thought he was referring to an oil rig, or similar, as we were quite used to unusual tows travelling through the Dover Straits. When I got up to the wheelhouse, Denny and the Skipper, Jack Rudd, were there watching the approaching tug ‘Suzanne M’ with the ‘Ore Meteor’ in tow. We all remarked that, in our opinion, the tug appeared too small to be carrying out the tow. The tug appeared to be no larger than a normal harbour tug, not a deep sea ocean going tug at all. I remember commenting to Jack that the tow was heading dangerously close to the station. Jack replied that he was confident that if the tug and tow continue on their present track they should clear the Lightvessel.

It was reported that the ‘Suzanne M’ and the ‘Ore Meteor’ passed either side of the Lightvessel causing the tow line to sweep across the Lightvessel’s fore deck, this is not so, had this happened, the Lightvessel would have probably been a total loss. What actually happened was, as the tug and tow approached the vicinity of the Lightvessel, perhaps realising their predicament and hoping to gain more sea room the tug altered course away from the station, more towards the Kent coast, the change of direction swung the ‘Ore Meteor’ immediately across the Lightvessel’s bows. Realising this, Jack and Denny left the wheelhouse, went onto the main deck and proceeded in pay out the main riding cable, hoping for the Lightvessel to drift out of harms way. In the meantime I was rousing the rest of the crew. On the main deck, seeing that a collision was imminent Jack Rudd secured the anchor windlass and we all made our way aft to the relative safety of underneath the helicopter landing platform. The side of the ‘Ore Meteor’ struck the bows of the Lightvessel just forward of the ‘Ore Meteor’s’ after accommodation section. This initial collision caused extensive damage to the upper section of the Lightvessel’s bow plates. The impact caused the Lightvessel to ‘bounce’ off the ‘Ore Meteor’s hull. Upon taking up all the slack in the main riding anchor cable, the Lightvessel drifted back into position. As this happened, the `Ore Meteor’s stern, on which was a stern anchor, was directly over and above the Lightvessel fore deck. The anchor fouled the stays of the Lightvessel’s foremast and pulled the Lightvessel over to port to such an angle that the Lightvessel foremast was toppled, the stern of the ‘Ore Meteor’ came into contact with, and demolished the Lightvessel’s lantern and after mast. Thus all damage was confined to upper parts of the Lightvessel with no damage to the waterline or below.

The collision occurred at around the time when all the Lightvessels in the group were making their routine radio check calls to the Coastguard. Dover Coastguard were immediately aware of what had occurred and informed Trinity House at Harwich accordingly. They also dispatched the Dover Lifeboat to our aid. There was also a cross channel ferry, en route to Folkestone that witnessed the collision.

Thankfully there were no injuries sustained by any of the Lightvessel crew, apart from shock. With the assistance of the lifeboat crew, we were able to ascertain the extent of the damage and make safe what we could. We were surprised to discover that, despite the damage to the lantern structure and the total demolition of the lantern glazing, not one bulb had been damaged in the optic. We proceeded to try to protect the lantern optic from the elements by covering it with the lantern curtains. The damaged glazing resulted in pieces of glass falling from a high level, which in itself presented additional hazards when walking around the Lightvessel decks. As night approached, with the lantern totally unserviceable, we illuminated the Lightvessel as best we could.

The Trinity House tender, THV Siren, arrived during the dark hours and acted as a ‘guard ship’ keeping the Lightvessel illuminated with searchlights, and warning any shipping that strayed too close. The next day, Monday, we prepared the Lightvessel for towing to Southampton for repairs, the tow to Southampton commenced just before darkness, once a high focal plane buoy had been positioned to mark the station. We were under tow all Monday night and arrived at Southampton on Tuesday Morning, when we were berthed at the Vosper Thorneycroft yard. Tuesday lunchtime we were relieved and transported to Harwich, Essex, which was our base, upon arrival were immediately transferred to LV3, which was a spare Lightvessel. Wednesday saw us preparing LV3 for station. Wednesday afternoon we were once again under tow and arrived back on the ‘Varne’ station early Thursday morning.

Therefore we didn’t get too much time ashore, after what was described as the worst Lightvessel collision in which the Lightvessel had survived. An article appeared in the Daily Mail on Monday 29th June 1981.

Former lightsman Brian Packham