IT was a disaster that touched an entire community, which has never forgotten the loss it suffered in one terrible day.

It was a dark and stormy January morning when the six-man crew of the Fraserburgh put to sea in The Duchess of Kent lifeboat to come to the rescue of an sinking fishing boat.

Such was the speed of the launch that one man, toolworker James Buchan, leapt from the harbourside into the lifeboat as it raced out of port and into the teeth of a force nine gale to find the ailing vessel.

But only one of the men would ever return to dry land after a monster wave capsized the lifeboat while it was still in view from the shore, trapping four of the crew below deck and tossing two into the waves.

One would survive, but the other man was never found again. The tragedy left five widows and 15 children without their fathers. 


The Duchess of Kent Pics: RNLI

This Tuesday marks 50 years since The Duchess of Kent lifeboat launched in challenging conditions to the aid of the Danish fishing vessel Opal.

On a day of phenomenally bad weather distress signals were reported 40 miles out to sea shortly after 7 o’clock in the morning.

A Danish fishing vessel with four crew members on board had sprung a leak and was described as ‘in a sinking condition’.

The alarm was sounded and the men dashed to the harbour, where James Buchan had just finished his night shift.

Coxswain John Stephen, the town's assistant harbourmaster, was in command of the volunteer, RNLI crew who were on the water by 7.34am, facing heavy seas as they made their way to the fishing vessel.

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In that time a Russian parent ship was standing by the Opal and had already applied a tow. The lifeboat was tasked with escorting both vessels back to port, however it was at that point when disaster struck.

The lifeboat was swamped by a huge wave and initially it was unclear how many crew were aboard and who was safe. But when John Buchan was picked up by the Russian ship, after being flung clear during the capsize, that the full extent of the situation became clear.

When the lifeboat was righted with assistance from the Russian vessel, the bodies of four of the crew were found trapped inside the hull and one crew member remained missing.

John Stephen and crew members William Hadden, James Buchan and James R. S. Buchan along with the missing Mechanic Frederick Kirkness lost their lives.

The 1970 disaster marked the third time that a lifeboat from Fraserburgh had been lost. The North East town had previously faced tragedy in 1953 and 1919, with 13 crew lost to the sea across both disasters.


The Duchess just before she was swamped

But the suddenness and scale of the third tragedy stunned the community . The joint funeral of the lost crew was attended by 13,000 people.

Mark Hadden, whose grandfather lost his life in the disaster, has been on the crew at Fraserburgh lifeboat since August 2018

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Speaking about the disaster and those who lost their lives, Mark said: "These men were local Fraserburgh men. They went out in the most appalling weather conditions regardless of what could happen and what the outcome would be.

"They went out to save the lives of others – and in doing so tragically, and selflessly, lost their own lives.

"Every one of those men should be remembered for what they gave and sacrificed that day. I know that I will always remember what they gave, and I hope that we will always take the time to remember their sacrifice."

While on service with the RNLI between 1959-1970, The Duchess of Kent lifeboat launched 23 times and saved 13 lives.

Coxswain of the current lifeboat is Vic Sutherland. The sacrifice of those fifty years ago still lives long in the memory of the current volunteers as they take to the seas today.

Mr Sutherland said: "Today we remember the six Fraserburgh volunteers who left their families to go to the aid of others, 5 of which never returned.

"Their sacrifice lives long in the memory here at the station and they are never far from our thoughts each time we answer the pager."

A service of remembrance was held at Fraserburgh's Old Parish Church yesterday, followed by a wreath laying ceremony at the statue marking the disaster outside the town's lifeboat station.