Maritime disaster was averted late last night when a 4,500-tonne ship adrift in the storm-lashed North Sea missed two gas platforms.

The engines of the Vindo, a cargo boat carrying fertiliser, had failed earlier in the day, causing 30 men to be evacuated from the Murdoch gas rig, 80 miles east of Flamborough Head, as a precaution.

Fears eased after the crew of the Vindo managed to start the engines about a mile from the Murdoch platform.

However, the coastguard later confirmed its engines had failed again. The spokesman said Vindo had released its anchor so there was no damage to gas pipelines but was drifting towards the unmanned Caister platform.

Humber coastguard scrambled an RAF helicopter to the scene and it stood by in case of emergency.

Fortunately the ship, with a crew of nine on board, avoided a second tragedy by 700 yards, the coastguard said. Early today the Vindo was drifting in open sea and is likely to be rescued by a tug and towed to a British port.

A coastguard spokesman said: "It has cleared the second platform by 700 yards so we have been very lucky that it has missed two platforms."

Last year the Vindo crashed into another large cargo vessel, Dealer, after failing to respond to radio messages.

Nobody was injured in the incident, which took place 17 miles off the coast of North Foreland, Kent.

Vindo, which was heading for Seville, Spain, was allowed to continue on its way after the incident.

Seven fishermen were also missing last night after two trawlers sank off the Irish coast. A search mission for five fishermen, feared drowned off Hook Head, was called off for the night after their boat, Pere Charles, sank earlier on Wednesday evening.

One of the missing, Pat Coady, 27, is the third generation of his family to drown - his father and grandfather also died fishing. The RNLI said two survivors from the other boat, the Honeydew II, were picked up by the coastguard shortly after 7pm.

They told rescue services the other two crew members got into a second liferaft when their ship sank some time before midnight. "Hopefully they're okay. They'll just have had to hold on to the raft through the conditions," an RNLI volunteer said.

Throughout the day 80mph winds caused havoc across much of Scotland.

The Erskine Bridge across the River Clyde was closed to all traffic before the morning rush hour and was still shut well into the evening. The Tay crossing was closed to double-decker buses, and the Forth Road Bridge was closed to high-sided vehicles. Strong wind warnings were in place on the Kessock Bridge at Inverness and the Skye Bridge.

Scottish Power said at any one time they reckoned to have 2500 homes cut off. At one point Scottish Hydro had 4000 consumers affected.

Rail services did not escape - a fallen tree brought down power lines on the Dumbarton-Helensburgh line. The Stranraer line was also closed after a tree fell on it.

Flights out of Glasgow Airport suffered 15-20 minute delays as strong gusts made take-off risky.

Last night the Scottish Environment Protection Agency had 14 flood watches and four flood warnings - in the west Perthshire area - in force, but the Met Office in Aberdeen warned that some two inches of rain was expected in some areas today.

England and Wales also took a battering, with one motorist dead after a tree fell on his car in Somerset, 80,000 homes across Wales left without electricity, and a stewardess was feared swept from the deck of a Russian bulk freighter off Cornwall.