Skagerak - When liferafts and helicopters saved the day

Caught in a violent storm in September 1966, the ferry “Skagerak” sprung a leak and teetered on the brink of disaster. Yet tragedy was avoided in what proved a successful baptism of fire for two of the
greatest sea rescue systems in history: the Sea King helicopter and the liferaft.

Danish ferry avoids tragedy

In the early morning of September 7, 1966 – following a delay due to severely adverse weather conditions – the ferry “Skagerak” set sail from Kristiansand, Norway, bound for the port of Hirtshals, Denmark. Just one year after its maiden voyage, this advanced vessel with a capacity of 760 passengers, was designed to weather the strong winds and 15-meter-tall waves at sea that day. 

Meanwhile, disaster struck when a colossal breaking wave knocked in the rear door, causing water to flood into the car deck and engine  room. The ferry’s engines stalled, and the pumps were unable to keep up with the water gushing in. Now at the mercy of the elements, the ship’s captain broadcast distress signals and ordered a full evacuation.

As soon as the SOS call was received by Skagen Radio, an impressive international rescue operation was launched with as many as 4,000 people, 18 large ships, 13 fishing boats, 9 airplanes and 8 helicopters. Two hospitals were also put on high alert, with a large staff of doctors and nurses on standby to receive survivors. The rescue team had no idea what to expect, but they knew that the ferry was carrying many children among its passengers, including an entire seventh grade class from the Danish town of Horsens, returning home from a field trip to Norway. 

Evacuation of passengers on Skagerak

Abandon ship!

The veteran Captain Dvergsnes immediately understood the gravity of the situation; all passengers and a large part of the crew were immediately sent to the Skagerak’s lifeboats and to the modern self-inflating rubber liferafts from Nordisk Gummibådsfabrik (VIKING). Meanwhile, the captain and a handful of key crew members remained on board to coordinate the evacuation and attempt to save the ship. 

In keeping with maritime customs, women and children were evacuated first. Those who could not fit into the boats jumped into the water wearing life jackets and then climbed to safety in the liferafts.

Helicopter hoisting from liferafts

Heroes in helicopters

The Danish Navy’s brand new Sea King helicopters arrived first at the scene, and the rescuers discovered an emergency both urgent and chaotic, with extremely high seas further aggravating the situation.

“Typically, during rescue missions of this nature, a man is lowered by line from the helicopter to the ship in distress. But the crew deemed this too dangerous because of the storm,” said Captain K. V. Willumsen of Aalborg Air Base in a later interview. Instead, passengers and crew were extracted from the ocean surface. Some were rescued from boats or liferafts, others directly from the sea.

Often, rescuers were lowered in “double lift” to ensure correct attachment of the rescue harness. A total of 59 people were rescued by the helicopters, while the remaining passengers and crew were pulled to safety by the many vessels partaking in the rescue operation. Captain Dvergsnes and his crew abandoned their efforts to save the Skagerak early that same evening and disembarked. Two hours later, the vessel capsized and disappeared into the deep. 

20 Our Mission At Work Skagerak (8)

An early drawing showing the rescue operation comprising ships, planes and helicopters.

The Skagerak miracle

Thanks to the extraordinary rescue operation, all 144 people on board were rescued. Although one passenger subsequently died of cardiac arrest, the rest miraculously survived the disastrous shipwreck. The media dubbed the operation the “Triumph of the Helicopters”, and indeed, the efforts of the helicopters was essential to the rescue’s great success. But the liferafts were also there when it mattered most, garnering extensive praise for their advantages over traditional lifeboats.

Captain Dvergsnes of the Skagerak originally believed that the lifeboats offered the safest means of evacuation for children and the elderly. Based on his experiences during the shipwreck, however, he later said that; “In such bad weather, it seems easier to get safely on board a rubber liferaft than a lifeboat – and easier to be rescued by ship or helicopter from a liferaft. The protective cover of the liferaft is also an advantage.”