When the trawler Ben Asdale was swept onto rocks at Falmouth’s Maenporth Beach 35 years ago, it sparked a heroic rescue operation rarely matched in Cornwall’s long history of shipwrecks.
Three men lost their lives in horrendous conditions, but there were 11 survivors – with eight airlifted to safety in extraordinary circumstances. Mike Truscott recalls drama on an epic scale.
A few jagged edges of rusty metal piercing the surface of the sea today bear scant testimony to the tragedy and courage that marked the tempestuous night of December 30-31, 1978.
A blizzard raged, visibility was poor, and winds gusting to storm force ten to 11 whipped up huge seas.
The 422-ton Scottish trawler Ben Asdale reported that cable had fouled her steering and she was drifting towards the shore. Ten minutes later, she put out a Mayday – and rescue services found her on the rocks at Newporth Head.
Search parties swung into action, following reports of men taking to life rafts.
A fleet of ambulances and police cars lined up at Maenporth Beach, and coastguards carried Breeches Buoy equipment and searchlights to the clifftop overlooking the wreck.
With blinding snow and the howling gale stinging their eyes, they rigged the equipment and, with their second rocket, they connected with the stricken vessel.
The trawler was awash, but the deck lighting was still on and the crew were in the wheelhouse.
Then, in one sickening moment, the Breeches Buoy was on its way to the wreck when the Ben Asdale turned over onto her side – jamming the block and carrying away the tripod. The deck lights went out and radio contact was lost.
Despite the low cloud base and driving snow, a helicopter was scrambled at RNAS Culdrose and arrived over the wreck at 2.08 am. The area was repeatedly illuminated by paraflares fired by coastguards and Falmouth lifeboat, herself taking a tremendous battering.
Two fire engines joined more police and ambulances at Pendennis Point – ready to illuminate that area if conditions ruled out a return to Culdrose by the helicopter.
Over some 90 minutes, eight survivors were winched up from the wheelhouse side windows, one at a time, with the helicopter coming in backwards on each occasion.
One of them had to be lowered back into the icy water – it was the only way that a blockage in the helicopter’s winch could be cleared.
Three other crew members had abandoned the vessel and managed to reach the shore - and three were missing.
Throughout the rescue operation, the helicopter pilot, Lieutenant Tony Hogg (now Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner), was unable to see the cliff edge. So coastguard officer Charles Robinson “conned” him in for each lift, standing on the clifftop and using VHF portable radio.
“Left, left, left,” he would say, or: “You need to drop much further back; you are going ahead too far.”
“Roger,” Lieutenant Hogg replied each time. He was awarded the Air Forces Cross for his efforts.
Coastguard district officer George Neilson, in charge of the rescue operation, described the conditions as extremely difficult and among the worst he had ever encountered.
He added: “The men were working on a cliff edge in an onshore gale, with driving snow and visibility that was poor at the best of times.”
The Ben Asdale had been offloading fish into a Russian factory ship in Falmouth Bay when she cast off her stern rope in readiness to move away.
But the rope fouled her rudder and she would not respond to her helm.
Then the bow rope parted in the fierce gale.
Her skipper let go an anchor, but it failed to hold and the doomed vessel was swept onto the rocks.