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An Easter disaster that lives on in the memory

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ON Monday 17 April 1995, Channiland’s packed catamaran, Saint-Malo, bound for Sark, slammed into rocks off Corbière at 40 knots and began to sink.

The Saint-Malo is pulled to a beaching spot in St Aubin's Bay. Picture: DAVID FERGUSON (24438581)

Over 300 passengers, many of whom were elderly, were forced to jump into uncovered life-rafts, leaving 55 with injuries including broken legs and ankles and some with hypothermia.

A huge rescue operation was launched with several boats and helicopters from France, Jersey and the UK racing to the scene to help.

Andy Hibbs, now coxswain of the Jersey Lifeboat Association, had joined the RNLI around two years before the disaster and was on his friend’s yacht in the marina when he first realised that something had gone terribly wrong.

‘I was on a friend’s boat in the marina having breakfast – I think it was a bank holiday and we could hear all this stuff going on on the radio but we were not really paying much attention to it,’ he said.

‘Suddenly our pagers went off so we got off and ran to the lifeboat station and Bob Vezier [coxswain] was already there. He said that it was the St Malo and that it was sinking and we had to go now.

‘I remember steering up round the land. It just felt like an eternity. I was chatting to Paul Battrick and I said, “Bob says it is the St Malo, what does he mean?” I could not believe it. But then we got to St Brelade’s Bay and through the dip at Corbière I could see the Channiland on its side, I just thought, “How are we going to get these people off?”’

Mr Hibbs added that on arrival, the chartered SeaCat Isle of Man ferry, was holding off alongside the St Malo, stopping it from moving closer to other rocks and a French helicopter was hovering overhead.

‘The thing was right on its side and there were no ladders or chutes. The French helicopter was not winching, it looked like they were taking pictures and the radio was absolute chaos. It is the only time I can remember us having to use the medium-frequency radio as we could not get through to anyone on the one we normally use,’ he said.

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‘When we were alongside – our boat rode up on the swell and we actually ended up punching a hole in the side of the ferry. Our boat was like a tank but I could not believe how thin the metal was on the ferry.

‘One of the most poignant moments I can remember was when a lady was stood at the forward hatch and she jumped out but ended up landing on the side of the life-raft before bouncing up the side of the hull. As she came down she got her foot caught inbetween the raft and the belting of the ship and it just ripped her ankle off – she was screaming and I can just remember shouting to the people on the life-raft to get her out of the water.’

During the rescue, the Alexander Coutanche crew, loaded around 150 people onto their vessel with 57 being taken back to St Helier onboard the lifeboat and the rest being transferred onto other vessels.

And Bob Vezier, coxswain, said that it was easily the worst incident he had had to deal with.

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‘There have been other bad incidents that I have been to but not on that sort of scale in terms of the amount of people whose lives were at risk,’ he said.

‘I am just so thankful to the crew of the day for all their professionalism.’

Later, the ferry, now almost completely submerged, was towed into St Aubin’s Bay, where it remained for a number of days and became an unofficial tourist attraction. An accident report found that Captain Philippe Peneau had turned off-course to avoid a number of fishing buoys but had failed to slow down, before slamming into Le Frouquie reef. Numerous safety recommendations were made.

Following the incident, in 1997, Derek Tristram tracked down a piece of granite from a harbour wall and began creating a sculpture to commemorate the incident.

He opted to sculpt a pair of clasped hands and in the following April, Senator Tony Chinn unveiled it to the public at Corbière.

At the time, Mr Tristram said: ‘The clasped hands are an age-old image which instantly comes to mind whenever one considers lifesaving. It signifies friendship and camaraderie.’

Ed Taylor

By Ed Taylor
Journalist

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