High Line Transfer

Flying across the Clyde on a crisp February morning

As part of a Small Craft Safety weekend run by HM Coastguard the RNAS, Fleet Air Arm were invited to demonstrate one of their specialist rescue techniques. A highline transfer. It sounds simple, and when you see the FAA crews doing highline work they can even make it look simple. It is not. Transfering a rescue team member from a 10 ton Seaking helicopter onto a moving boat demands nerve and skill.
Highline transfers require a great level of concentration from the helicopter crew and good deal of cooperation from the yacht they are trying to reach.

Rescue at sea is something that every sailor dreads, the mere fact of being afloat adds a further level of danger to any rescue attempt. The need for assistance can vary from the extreme, perhaps injured or sick crew member, to the hazardous, fire, collision damage, engine failure or worse.

Speed is everything in emergency situations and the response time of the rescue services is critical. without doubt one of the fastest responding sections of our rescue services are the Fleet Air Arm SeaKing helicopters. From their base at Prestwick the RNAS helicopters are available to cover a huge area of western scotland, both land and sea.

Training is constant and all aircrew regularly spend time on rescue techniques, the highline transfer being just one of the skills practiced. The crews execute these difficult techniques with practised ease but as we found out on the day even the best laid plans can have their problems.

Approaching the stern of the cutter.

The assembled delegates to the safety conference were to view the execise from the HM Coastguard headquarters overlooking the Clyde. The large windows offer a panoramic view across to the mountains of the souther highlands, in February dusted with snow.

My place was with the crew of the Coastguard cutter who were to act as the target boat for the approaching Sea King. In spite of the sunshine it was cold and I was fully wrapped up in my Helly Hansen offshore gear and bedecked with 3 cameras. My manually inflated lifejacket finished off the required dress code.

The cutter looked quite large from the jetty but it soon became cramped as we all got aboard and motored off to meet the Sea King. This was part of Coastguard volunteer training and two trainees were with us to take part in the Highline.

The first part of the preparations for any boat that is going to receive a crewman from a helicopter in flight is to make sure that the highline itself does not end up as a dangerous 'rat's nest' of rope on the deck. Our coxwain had brought a bucket to feed the line into. The second most important aspect is to have your boat travelling into the wind (if possible!). If the target for the Sea King is a yacht then the sails should be down, motor on and the boom lashed. Follow the pilots instruction for a heading and speed and then leave the rest to them.

The Sea King we were working with took up station off the port quarter and started to move closer and lower. The spray starts to fly at this point, a Sea King has a downdraught of about 130 knots and anything not tied down, like the sea, starts to move around. As this is happening the winch operator on the Sea King is lower the highline. This is a lightweight line with a bag of lead shot attached to the end. The weight of the bag is decided by the amount of wind blowing, either way it is best not to be clouted by the bag as it swings inboard.

Once the highline has been taken onboard the Sea King lowers their crewman and starts to move even closer to the target boat. At this point the roar from engines and downdraught from the rotors makes conversation impossible. The amount of spray being blown around also rises and it becomes like a shower cubicle in the back of the launch.

Seen from the Sea King as the crewman gets ready for contact.

As the winch cable is extended our coxwain started to use the highline to guide the crewman towards the rear of our boat. The highline is attached to the crewman with a lighter piece line so that should the pilot have to do an emergency abort he can simply pull away knowing that the man on the winch wire will go with him.

Almost before you realise we are joined by the Sea Kings crewman as he steps on the top of the engine cover, the boat is now feeling very crowded. The winch hook was unclipped with some haste and the Sea King banked steeply away and headed for open water and then turned and moved to execute a landing on Battery Park. This was not quite what we had planned!

The plan had been to reverse the highline and for the Sea King to recover it's crewman. Events had taken a different turn, the aircraft had suffered a primary hydraulics failure. At least that was what the instruments had told the pilot, and he had made an emergency landing. Not a pleasant thought, 10 tons of helicopter about 40 feet over your head, blades whirling and having problems with it's lifeblood, hydraulic fluid.

As events turned out the problem was a minor one and we returned the crewman to his pilot and they left for a return flight to HMS Gannet. I returned to the rest of the seminars at the Coastguard HQ. A lesson had been learned by all, even the professionals can have problems. Perhaps it is best not to need their services in the first place.

As the seminar for the new GMDSS radio came up we moved into the main control room. In the background came the unmistakable call over the radio ...Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. But thats another story.

A short photo sequence showing a highline taking place.

After checking the boat, wind speed and wind direction the Seaking pilot starts his approach.

The highline weighted bag is lowered first. The weight selected by the crew is determined by the windspeed. In high winds a heavier bag is used to combat the increased drag.

The launch coxwain collects the highline. We had a bucket ready to store the line so it would not foul or become entangled.

The Seakings crewman is lowered on the main winch cable. The highline is used to guide him onto the moving boat. In general the highline is loaded to 80lbs breaking strain allowing the pilot to break off the manouevere if a problem should occur.

The coxwain brings the crewman the last few feet to the stern quarter of the launch.

With the crewman safely on board the Seaking stands off at a safe distance. Helicopters prefer to fly than to hover so the Seaking will fly circuits until called back to transfer any casualties.
To get a casualty off the boat and into the helicopter the sequence is reversed.

Safely back at HMS Gannet.

Word and Images by David Lynch, Bluedome