The death of a helicopter winchman swept from the decks of a storm-lashed ship was due to delays by the captain and crew he was rescuing, according to a sheriff's report published yesterday.

Mr Bill Deacon, 50, from Aberdeenshire, died on November 19, 1997 after rescuing ten Croatian and Filipino crew members from the 3500-tonne refrigerated cargo vessel Green Lily, when the ship lost power in stormy seas off the Shetland Islands.

He had 27 years of rescue experience and was providing holiday cover for Shetland Coastguard at the time of the tragedy. In a written determination issued after a fatal accident inquiry at Lerwick Sheriff Court in August, Sheriff Colin Scott Mackenzie concluded ''unnecessary and cumulative delays'' by the captain and 14 crew of the Bahamian-registered ship were largely to blame for Mr Deacon's death.

He said that without the hold-ups, which included a delay in declaring an emergency in the first place, the crew going back to their quarters to collect personal luggage, and a delay in bringing tow ropes aboard the Green Lily, Mr Deacon would probably have survived.

He added: ''William Deacon lost his life in the closing seconds of what had been a long and exacting, and otherwise successful, rescue operation, so far as life was concerned.

''Had any one of these quite unnecessary and cumulative delays been avoided, it is quite possible that the tragedy of his death would not have occurred.''

He said an unexplained breakdown in communication between the master and the crew of the Green Lily was an operational defect which possibly contributed to the delays.

The sheriff praised the bravery of Mr Deacon, who is survived by a widow and two adult children.

He said: ''He was a very brave man, who in exceptional and appalling weather conditions assisted in the rescue of 10 crew members of the Green Lily, but did not seek to preserve his own life when he could have done so, by possibly risking the safety of those he was engaged in helping.

''He ensured that those whom he was sent to rescue were first lifted to safety, but before he could himself be lifted clear of danger he was overwhelmed, thus laying down his life in the service of others.''

Mr Deacon's wife Lorna later said in a statement through Aberdeen-based Quantum Compensation Specialists: ''I am pleased that the determination to a great extent endorses our own view regarding the decisions and actions of the skipper and crew of the Green Lily, in that this led to a situation developing where my husband was placed in considerably more danger than was necessary. The comments regarding his bravery are also greatly welcome at what is again a very difficult time for the family.''

The managers of the Norwegian-based Green Lily, Green Management AS, said although it did not agree with all the findings, it appreciated the work done in preparing the determination.

In a statement, it added: ''Our appreciation continues for all rescuers who acted so heroically to rescue all 15 crew members of Green Lily. In particular, of course, we recognise wholeheartedly the immense part played by Mr Deacon.''