Royal Navy HMS Argyll rescues crew of Grande America in Bay of Biscay - ship in flames (Crown Copyright, 2019)

HMS Argyll Rescues Crew of Grande America

Royal Navy Frigate in Eight-Hour Rescue Mission in Bay of Biscay

The Royal Naval frigate HMS Argyll battled difficult sea conditions in the Bay of Biscay to rescue the crew of the merchant ship Grande America. The battle lasted eight hours, with HMS Argyll rescuing all 27 crew members of the burning Grande America.

HMS Argyll F231 was returning to Plymouth after a nine-month tour of duty in the Asia-Pacific region when she picked up a Mayday call. The 28,000 tonne merchant vessel Grande America was about 150 miles out from Brest, France, and on fire.

The Grande America, an Italian-registered merchant vessel, had been bound for Casablanca from Hamburg when the fire broke out at 8pm yesterday.

The Grande America’s cargo of containers and cars had caught fire. After fighting a losing battle against the flames, the crew of the Grande America decided to abandon ship. All 27 crew embarked on a single lifeboat. As the lifeboat dropped into heavy seas, with waves reaching 6 metres, it was damaged, leaving the sailors drifting in dangerous conditions.

Arriving at the scene of the accident, HMS Argyll was able to launch a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) despite the poor conditions. The HMS Argyll’s vessel was then able to nudge the Grande America’s lifeboat towards HMS Argyll where the crew were winched aboard.

Based in Plymouth, HMS Argyll is the longest-serving Type 23 frigate in the Royal Navy. Built in the late 1980s at the Yarrow Yard in Scotstoun on the Clyde (now BAE Systems), she was commissioned in 1991.

In the heavy seas, the orange lifeboat – “just like the one in Captain Phillips,” was “bobbing around like a cork in a bathtub,” said Lieutenant Commander Dave Tetchner, HMS Argyll’s Weapon Engineer Officer.

“The conditions were horrendous,” said Lieutenant Commander Dave Tetchner, HMS Argyll’s Weapon Engineer Officer, “the vessels were rolling at 30 degrees which made it extremely hairy getting the sailors safely on board.”

The Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat held the GrandeAmerica’s lifeboat against the hull of HMS Argyll, while Royal Marines hauled the crew of the Grande America to safety.

“It was pretty awful for them,” said Lt Cdr Tetchner, “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. It was pretty awful all round and they were shocked.”

Fortunately, none of the Grande America’s crew had suffered serious injury. HMS Argyll transported them to Brest where they were taken to hospital.

MV Grande America was still burning when HMS Argyll left the merchant ship around 5am this morning.

“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,” added Lt Cdr Tetchner.

Lt Cdr Tetchner said the manner in which the 200 sailors and Royal Marines aboard HMS Argyll – due home on Friday – 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.

“These are the things people join the Navy for – a real life, really worthwhile job, especially when the result is a good one like this”

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.”

Source: MOD, Royal Navy

Image: Royal Navy HMS Argyll rescues crew of Grande America in Bay of Biscay – ship in flames (Crown Copyright, 2019).