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Former Coxswain Michael Scales - My memories of the Bonita rescue

Former Coxswain Michael Scales - My memories of the Bonita rescue

Saturday 11 December 2021

Former Coxswain Michael Scales - My memories of the Bonita rescue

Saturday 11 December 2021


The Coxswain of the St. Peter Port Lifeboat 40 years ago has shared his memories of the day he and his volunteer crew headed into horrendous conditions in the English Channel to assist a stricken cargo ship and ultimately save the lives of 29 people.

As the RNLI marks the 40th anniversary of the Bonita rescue - which in total saved the lives of 34 of the 36 people on board - Michael Scales has given an interview released as part of commemorations of a 'gold medal rescue'.

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Pictured: A rescued crewman is taken off the Sir William Arnold in Brixham. Picture credit: Herald Express. 

As Coxswain of the Sir William Arnold, Mr Scales led the local response to the Bonita's Mayday call on Sunday 13 December 1981.

The 8,000-tonne Ecuadorian cargo ship was carrying fertiliser from Hamburg to Panama when she was caught in a hurricane in the Channel. The children and wives of the Captain and First Engineer were on board along with the crew, engineers and an electrician.

The Bonita was listing heavily to starboard and was unable to right herself when the ship lost power at lunchtime. 

The RNLI’s volunteer crew launched the Sir William Arnold Lifeboat at 13:23 to support the work of Royal Navy helicopters which also went to help the Bonita.

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Pictured: Former St. Peter Port Lifeboat Coxswain Michael Scales received a gold medal for gallantry for leading the Bonita rescue of December 1981.

In his interview with the RNLI, Michael Scales recalled the conditions.

"Well, that morning was quite horrendous," he said.

"St. Peter Port Harbour was closed. We got a call about 13:00, roughly lunchtime - we hadn’t had our lunch yet by the way. St. Peter Port had received a mayday and off we set.

"Shortly after leaving St. Peter Port, we broached [keeled over to one side by the force of the wind and sea] and that was the first of many broachings. On the radar, you could just see walls of water.

"The first view of the ship, it was dusk, it was snowing and the seas were 15 metres high.

"It’s not until you see the daunting sight of a ship laying on its side knowing the amount of people that have to be rescued and the precarious position they are in. Then you have a thought: ‘well, how am I going to get these off safely, or as best you can'.

"I have great respect for those crew members on board Bonita who decided ‘well, we’re going to jump’ because personally I wouldn’t have liked to. I wasn’t thinking about my state of mind - I was thinking about the state of mind of the people we had to persuade to jump.

"Halfway through, we had 16 people on board, we had a serious injury and the crew were exhausted. I was exhausted because it is concentration. Eventually, the master of the Bonita was rescued and then I went ‘oh, thank you, God."

A few months after the rescue, in May 1982, Michael Scales and his crewmen received medals for their gallantry. At the RNLI awards presentation they met the widows and other relatives of the Penlee Lifeboat crew who had all perished at sea just days after the Bonita rescue. The Penlee crew launched to assist the Union Star, but everyone on board both vessels drowned. 

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Pictured: The 'gold medal' crew of December 1981, who went to assist the Bonita as she listed in hurricane force storms in the English Channel.

Mr Scales said in his new interview that he still remembers meeting the relatives of the Penlee crew. He is proud of what the RNLI achieved four decades ago and is still achieving today.

"We were there at the same time as the widows of the Penlee receiving their husbands’ or sons’ medals. We took our [RNLI] ties and tied them in a big knot and presented them to the widows as a knot of friendship between the stations.

"I look at some of the photos. A few of my crew have since passed. I look at 40 years and think: ‘where did that go?'

"I look at what the RNLI is doing now in their construction, their training, the college - and it’s a new generation, but it’s still: 'get out there and save lives'."

Pictured top: Michael Scales speaking in a new interview released by the RNLI which can be viewed in full HERE.  

All images and videos provided to Express by the RNLI.

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