Loss of the Meridian - one body found

Dead man, believed to be crew, found by searchers

Scottish village fears loss of a third of its fishing fleet

Severin Carrell Scotland correspondent
Saturday October 28, 2006
The Guardian (external - login to view)

They found the trawler's activated distress beacon first. Within minutes, there came an empty, storm-drenched orange life raft, followed by a trail of buckets, nets and boots littered over the surging seas.

And as dusk fell yesterday, the first body was discovered, leaving their worst fears confirmed and another fishing community in mourning. For crews of the Sea King helicopters and Nimrod aircraft scouring the gale-battered waters with searchlights, it was the most depressing find. The body was, they suspect, one of the four missing crew members of the trawler Meridian from the small fishing community of Anstruther in Fife.

The crew were named as Martin Gardner, 49, Edward Gardner, 50, and Ian Donald, 55, all from Fife, and Sidney Low, 52, from Aberdeen.

One of the Meridian's two life rafts was still unaccounted for. Families of the three remaining missing crew and fellow trawlermen were last night praying that they might have clambered onboard, defied the storm and survived.

But with dusk falling and still no sign of the three missing men, hope of their safe return was fading.

The trawler's distress beacon had first been picked up by the RAF Rescue Coordination Centre at Kinloss on the north-east coast of Scotland at 10pm on Thursday, as the North Sea was pummelled by force 10 and 11 gales.
About half an hour later, the distress signal was heard again.

One of the most intensive search and rescue operations in the North Sea for years was soon under way.

The Meridian's location was pinpointed some 160 miles east of Aberdeen on the border between the British and Norwegian sectors of the North Sea, close to the sprawling network of oil and gas platforms.

By early yesterday, the Norwegian search and rescue centre at Stavanger was overseeing an operation involving Nimrod aircraft from RAF Kinloss, Sea King helicopters from RAF Boulmer in Northumberland, Norwegian aircraft and an ad hoc flotilla of trawlers and support vessels from nearby rigs.

The Meridian too was engaged on a safety mission. Normally, the vessel would have been at sea for prawn and herring. This week, her crew were hired through the Scottish Fishermen's Federation to work for Talisman Energy as a guard vessel, stationed over an oil pipeline being repaired to prevent other trawlers from straying too close.

It had been at sea since October 11 and was due to complete its duties in four days' time.

Michael Mulford, an RAF spokesman at Kinloss, said: "The beacon was found at 2.20am, the life raft at 2.30am and some debris at 3am. We believe they had one other life raft so all hope now has to rest upon that. We're now many hours down the line. No one could survive in the water that long.

"If they are in another life raft, conditions will have been extremely difficult. These self-inflating orange life rafts can hold between four and six people. It would buy them some time, though."

But even before the first body was found, Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, said: "If a boat has been missing for this number of hours in such horrendous conditions, the outlook is bleak. It would be daft to say otherwise."

For Anstruther and its neighbouring village of Pittenweem, the loss of the Meridian will be deeply felt. Fishing is embedded in the history of the two villages on the East Neuk of Fife, just south of St Andrews.

Anstruther once boasted a large fleet, fishing for cod, haddock and plaice. Now it mostly relies on tea rooms, nostalgia and pleasure trips to the Isle of May seabird colonies. Pittenweem still has its fish market, but a dwindling fleet.

Yesterday people clustered around the telephones in the harbour master's office on Anstruther's quayside waiting for news. The tight knit community is home to the Scottish Fisheries Museum. The Meridian, built more than 25 years ago by another local skipper, Pete Murray, is now one of just three trawlers based in the village. In one night, and one storm, a third of its fleet may have been lost.

In storms of this severity, the Meridian's crew would try to point the trawler directly into the wind, effectively heading into the storm. "We call it dodging, and that means your ship is exposed to less of the weather," said Mike Parks, executive chairman of the Scottish Whitefish Producers Association.

"That's the safest place to be in a storm. That way, your vessel goes up and down, and rolls about far less. It comes to the point in these winds that you've to watch it when you're turning and you've to watch out for other vessels because of the height of the seas.

"By a factor of five, we're the most dangerous industry in the UK."

Even so, if all the crew has been lost, they will be the first from the north-east of Scotland to go down with their vessel in nearly a decade.

The search was continuing last night.


[[Maybe it was sunk by the US Navy]]

Lost at sea

Solway Harvester, January 11 2000
Seven young men, including three members of one family, died on the scallop dredger the Solway Harvester during "horrendous" seas and winds close to the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea.

Sapphire, October 1 1997
Four men were lost when the Sapphire sank rapidly in rough weather just 12 miles from its home port of Peterhead. Its skipper escaped through the wheelhouse.

Penlee Lifeboat, December 20 1981
Eight men of the volunteer Penlee lifeboat, the Soloman Browne, perished as they assisted the Union Star cargoship after its engines failed in treacherous weather off Cornwall.
Gaul, February 7 1974
One of the most enduring mysteries of the Cold War, the Gaul was allegedly on an Arctic spying mission when the vessel sank with a 36-man crew after fishing the Barents Sea. No evidence of spying was found.