Shipwreck! Dangerous conditions at sea

After air-sea rescue operations from the Scillies to the Western Isles, maritime union raises fears that crews are coming under pressure to sail in dangerous conditions
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A ship's captain suffering spinal injuries and internal bleeding was rescued from his vessel yesterday in a helicopter airlift off the Isles of Scilly.

The operation was the most serious of a number of emergency rescues launched to save crews and passengers caught up in the storms that have been battering Britain's coastline over the past three days.

Off the west coast of Scotland, 14 crew members had to be airlifted to safety on Friday after their trawler, the Spinning Dale, was pushed into rocks near St Kilda in the Western Isles. Conservationists now fear that ship rats could wreak havoc among the island's bird colonies.

Off the Lancashire coast near Blackpool, helicopters and lifeboats were scrambled to a freight ferry, Riverdance, on Thursday night after it was hit by a freak wave. The last of the crew were winched off the ship the next day. Instead of the oil slick many local residents had feared, thousands of packets of McVitie's biscuits were washed ashore.

These have now been six major incidents of ships lost or run aground in British waters so far this year.

This weekend's most serious injury, to the captain in the Scillies incident, who had not been named last night, happened late on Friday, when a force-10 storm threatened to engulf his 13,000-ton cargo ship, the Horncliff. Giant waves washed dozens of containers overboard.

The captain was taken to the Royal Cornwall Hospital, Treliske, where his condition was described as "serious but stable".

Andrew Linington, a spokesman for Nautilus, a trade union for maritime professionals, said: "The recent incidents should serve as a wake-up call for the industry and regulators because they are a taste of what could be far worse to come."

The union claims that ship owners are driving vessels and crews as hard as possible, often resulting in ships sailing in weather conditions that they would normally avoid.

"Crew competency is an issue," said Mr Linington. "On many ships you've got people who in all honesty don't really know what they're doing, because in many cases they are being crewed by whoever the ship owners can get. The UK shipping industry has one of the world's best safety records – our main concerns are foreign-owned ships in British waters."

According to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, accidents involving foreign commercial vessels in UK waters rose from 85 in 2003 to 150 in 2006.

Mark Brownrigg, the director-general of the British Chamber of Shipping, said: "We believe that the skills of crews are subject to a regime which ensures that by and large they are professional and solid."

Paying tribute to the people involved in the emergency rescues, he added: "What we've seen over the past few days has been a professional response in an unpredictable environment, [a tribute] both to the seamanship and the quality of the rescue services."

This weekend's incidents at sea come a year after the MSC Napoli almost sank in heavy seas off Devon, with hazardous chemicals on board, along with goods including car parts, prompting a looting spree that lasted for days.