TWO fishermen who sparked a massive North Sea search and rescue operation put themselves and others in "significant danger", marine investigators have concluded.

Jim Reid, 75, and his grandson David Irvine, 35, were feared dead after vanishing in thick fog on an early morning trip in their 16ft creel boat "Water-rail" last May.

Several lifeboats, two search and rescue helicopters and numerous civilian vessels spent days combing the coast for the men - unaware they had drifted nearly 50 miles out to sea.

They were found alive and well by a passing deep sea trawler after surviving on bottled water and biscuits for two days.

But yesterday their lack of preparation was highlighted as a danger to themselves and other North Sea vessels in a highly critical report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch.

The report concluded that Mr Reid, the designated skipper, "lacked the competence necessary to navigate safely in the prevailing conditions placing himself, his grandson, his boat and other vessels in significant danger".

Accident investigators also found that the lack of a radio on the boat contravened safe practice, the onboard compass was not set up properly and Mr Reid's grandson lacked formal training and should not have been a regular crew member.

The report concluded: "The skipper of Water-rail and his grandson were extremely fortunate that they were spotted and then rescued by the crew of the trawler Sylvia Bowers.

"This incident has identified the skipper's poor safety practices, which resulted in his rapid loss of situational awareness, an unnecessary search and a difficult experience for his family."

The two men left Gourdon harbour, on the Aberdeenshire coast, at 4am on May 20 to tend creels in Bervie Bay.

But the alarm was raised when they failed to return at noon that day, as thick fog blanketed the area.

Coastguard search teams were scrambled to the scene along with two search and rescue helicopters and three RNLI crews.

The men spent two days in their small fishing boat lost in thick fog and cold conditions as they travelled further and further out to sea.

By the morning of May 22 the search had been called off - with the men missing and presumed dead.

However, the crew of the Sylvia Bowers trawler later stumbled upon the pair in the deep waters of the North Sea. The trawler's skipper contacted the coastguard and an RNLI lifeboat crew from Montrose met the vessel half-way to pick up the men.

The missing men's family, who had been anxiously waiting at the quay in Gourdon, were overwhelmed when they were brought back ashore to massive cheers in Montrose.

In the marine accident investigation report released yesterday Mr Reid was accused of "lacking safety awareness" by routinely taking to the water without personal flotation devices, communications equipment, and insufficient training.

Marine investigators said the decision to head out to sea on the day they went missing was based on a "flawed" belief that the weather would clear.

The report said: "Had the skipper given due consideration to the expected visibility and the limitations of his equipment it would have become apparent that proceeding to sea was unsafe.

"The subsequent decision to press ahead and attempt to cross Bervie Bay, based on a flawed assumption that the fog would dissipate, was

ill-judged and almost cost the skipper and his grandson their lives."

Investigators added: "Had the skipper been better prepared and able to raise the alarm once he became lost, this would have avoided the need for the extensive search and spared the family the traumatic experience of believing their loved ones had been lost at sea."

The Marine Accident Investigations Branch said the incident highlighted the need for preparation before heading out to sea.