A ROYAL Navy paramedic led a dramatic cliff-face rescue of seven sightseers after their boat overturned on a remote coastline in the Scottish Hebrides.
Petty Officer Marcus Wigfull, aged 39, repeatedly descended the cliff-face on a 160ft winch from helicopter HMS Gannett in a desperate race against time as the tide came in, plucking each of the stranded people - and a dog - to safety from a narrow shelf at the bottom of 130ft cliffs.
PO Wigfull was called to the scene with fellow crew by the Clyde Coastguard after a sightseeing boat, containing four adults, three teenagers and a dog, capsized as they visited Fingal’s Cave on the uninhabited Staffa island, Argyll and Bute.
The five passengers and two boat crew had managed to swim to the small shelf at the foot of the sheer cliffs but were stranded as the tide came in. Six of the group were on a rock and a seventh man was stranded alone on another side of the cave entrance.
PO Wigfull, a former Henry Fanshawe School pupil, told The Star the rescue was one of the most dangerous in his career.
He said: “Out of around 800 rescues I have been involved with, this one would be within the top couple of per cent which have been the most hazardous.
It wasn’t so much the conditions as the logistics - with towering, sheer cliffs, and the tide coming in. To start with, the rock where most of the group was stood was 12ft across, at the end, it was only 4ft.
“When we arrived at the scene, there appeared to be six people on a rock and one person on another rock.
“The helicopter had to climb 160ft above the water, to ensure it was clear of the cliffs.
“The winch is 245ft long and working at 160ft is very dangerous in itself.”
PO Wigfull, whose mother lives in Unstone, and who has other relatives in Dronfield, Woodseats and Chesterfield, said: “On the first rock, there were three adults and three teenagers - two boys and one girl - plus a dog. When I got down to them, I sent two of the teenagers up first on the winch on their own. I then had a bag sent down to me for the dog.
“I went back up with the dog then came back down and sent the other teenager and one of the adults up next. I sent the next two adults up on their own, then was carried over on the winch to get the last man.”
Once they were on board the helicopter, PO Wigfull said he then went round each of the group, giving them a ‘once over.’
He had to give some treatment for cuts and bruises.
The officer was praised for the perilous rescue by his commander, Lieutenant Commander Dave Reese, who said: “PO Wigfull knew he had to achieve a careful balance of multiple winches, recovering the people rapidly, but safely, on a long wire with a solid face of rock behind throughout.
“The hazards involved were significant. The pilot, Lt Mark Wielopolski, also had to ensure he maintained a very steady hover throughout the half hour it took to winch all those stranded to safety.
“We are just delighted and proud to have been able to carry out this rescue swiftly and with a full positive result all-round.”
PO Wigfull’s helicopter, based at Prestwick, in Ayrshire, arrived just over half an hour after being called to the scene.
A Royal Navy spokesman said: “The five tourists and the dog were flown to Lorne and the Isles Hospital in Oban, on the mainland, and, although shocked and cold, the rescued sightseers had only suffered minor cuts during their scramble from the water.”
The two boat crew members, who had taken the tour out to the cave on a small boat from a larger vessel, insisted on returning to their main boat, to sail it home.
PO Wigfull, who is married with two children, has previously received the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery in the Air award for his heroic rescue of three yachtsmen from a grounded vessel in rough seas, in 2008.
He has also been featured in a Channel Five TV programme, Highland Emergency.