Combined Maritime Force, Maritime Shipping and a Royal Navy helicopter and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ship have been involved in a comprehensive and coordinated search and rescue operation of mariners in the Arabian Sea south of Oman.
On the morning of 26th June at 0237 UK time the Merchant Tanker (MT) Rama 2 put out a “Mayday” call that was passed to the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) office in Dubai. The Rama 2 was reporting a heavy list to starboard with 14 crew members on board; weather conditions were very difficult in the area with a sea state 5 and a swell with tall waves of over 25 feet / 5 metres. This call was relayed to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Fareham, Hampshire who began to coordinate a rescue plan.
The United Kingdom Maritime Component Command (UKMCC) and Combined Maritime Force (CMF) in Bahrain were informed and assessed options to assist the rescue plan with Naval ships, helicopter and maritime patrol aircraft support deployed in the region. Later in the morning Rama 2 was reported ‘sunk’ as the combined action plan was put into place to assist the stricken crew. HMS Monmouth’s Wildcat helicopter, known as ‘Black Jack’ from 815 Naval Air Squadron, was launched to meet up with RFA Cardigan Bay who was closer to scene and able to transit towards the area for an airborne search and rescue operation, this is a technique often used by the Fleet Air Arm and is referred to as a ‘lily-pad’ jump
Concurrently merchant vessels MTM Tortola, MV Soyo and MV Sea Power were able to locate and assist the crew members in the area 120 Nautical miles East North East of Yemen’s Socotra Island. Of the 14 crew men in the water, Tortola was able to recover 10 of them and two were recovered by Sea Power, but two were still missing at this point.
RFA Cardigan Bay was making best speed towards the scene and as soon as the Black Jack was within range it was launched to conduct a search for the remaining crew members in the water. A Japanese Maritime Patrol Aircraft (‘Japan 41’), operating under Combined Maritime Forces CTF 151 and supporting the efforts, gave positions for Black Jack to search and just towards the end of the flight time a crewman was spotted in the water and at the time he was not showing signs of life. Due to critically low fuel his location was marked and Black Jack returned to Cardigan Bay to quickly refuel and then made best speed back to the scene.
Upon arrival the remaining survivor was located and marked with smoke by MV Soyo. Black Jack was at the limit of its safe operating window with darkness approaching, fuel running low again and weather conditions hampering the search when the rescue began. In difficult seas with tall waves and worsening conditions, Black Jack was able to reach the survivor and after various attempts connect him to the wire for a last minute lift out of the water. There were times when the waves engulfed both winchman and survivor in exhausting conditions which took over half an hour to get him connected to the wire.
Just before sunset Black Jack landed on the flight deck of Cardigan Bay. The survivor was immediately checked by the Medical Officer and assessed to be fit and well but somewhat battered, it was estimated that he had been in the water since the sinking earlier in the day, none of the Rama 2 crew had been able to get into life rafts because of the bad weather. All crew were reunited on board MTM Tortola and recovered to Salalah in Oman. Flight Commander and aircraft Observer Lieutenant Ash Morgan RN said: “This rescue was tricky due to the time we had to transit after the Lily-pad onto RFA Cardigan bay and then looking for a sole survivor in open water with very choppy conditions”, Pilot Lieutenant Si Hall RN added: “The efforts of Japan 41 and the assisting merchant vessels were particularly humbling and I have no doubt that it was the combined efforts that resulted in a successful recovery”. The aircraft Winch-man AET Stu Rogers said: “That was a difficult sortie, we were close to the wire on that one but it was great that we were able to get him on board, a thirty minute attempt to get him hooked up was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do since joining the Fleet Air Arm.”
In spite of extensive searching with all the assets searching for most of the day, unfortunately the last crew member could not be recovered who was estimated has been in the water for over 12 hours and was previously assessed to be lifeless.
Captain Simon Staley RN, Chief of Staff of CMF’s CTF151 said: “We were asked to assist a vessel in distress following a mayday signal. Details were sparse at first but we understood that the vessel was sinking” he added: “with a known reported position we were to support the rescue with our Maritime Patrol Aircraft call sign Japan 41.”
Commodore Will Warrender RN Commander of the UKMCC and Deputy Commander of CMF said to all those involved: “Well done to those involved for a swift response, your resolve in adverse weather conditions allowed you to contribute towards the recovery of 13 people, including the one lifted by Black Jack. Your efforts saved lives, BZ.”