Two yachtsmen owe their lives to the fliers of 771 Naval Air Squadron after a dramatic rescue in a gale 100 miles off Cornwall.
Aircrewman Sgt Tony Russell RM was forced to dive into the Atlantic and under a liferaft to haul one of the sailors to safety after the men had abandoned the Andrietta some 75 miles southwest of the Scilly Isles.
The yachtsmen sent an SOS when their boat’s engine failed, her sails were damaged and they were unable to steer.
When a Sea King from the Culdrose-based Search and Rescue squadron arrived on the scene, its crew decided the mountainous seas, strong winds and the violent pitching and yawing of the yacht made it too dangerous to winch the Andrietta’s crew off the boat.
Instead, they decided the safest method was for the sailors to get in the raft from where Sgt Russell could lift them safely.
When the Royal Marine returned to pick up the second yachtsman, there was no sign of him. After searching the waters around the liferaft, the sergeant dived underneath, found the sailor – but then had to extricate him from a tangle of ropes and lines.
Once he’d achieved that, the winchman lifted the yachtsman into the safety of the helicopter.
“The job was up there as ‘grade A’,” said Sgt Russell.
“It’s a strange thing to say, but I actually enjoyed the experience – although there were times when I thought my time was up.”
The two sailors he saved were unhurt, but shaken by their ordeal. Their yacht did not founder and was eventually brought back to harbour.
Aside from its high-profile Search and Rescue mission, 771 Naval Air Squadron plays a key role in training front-line Sea King aircrew for duties in Afghanistan with 854 and 857 Naval Air Squadrons.
771 also provides support to maritime counter-terrorism patrols over UK waters, as well as conducting any other general duties the Navy requires.