THE courage and dedication of two Dorset lifeboat crews has been praised after a ‘crisis’ was narrowly averted which could have resulted in dozens of deaths and an environmental disaster.

Swanage and Weymouth lifeboats rushed to the aid of a cargo ship which had lost power and was drifting in rough seas on New Year's Eve.

Now, new information has come to light about the incident, including that the Government was informed as the incident was ongoing, because the ship was carrying fuel which, if spilled, could have had a huge adverse impact on the environment.

Stephen Sanderson, of St Albans Head National Coastwatch Institution (NCI), said it was an incredibly lucky escape for all involved.

The cargo ship, the Pilsum, had dropped anchor off Portland Bill after losing power, but winds were so strong, the ship drifted miles eastward over to St Albans Head, coming close to being dashed onto rocks.

Mr Sanderson, whose colleagues oversaw the incident in the lookout, said it took seven attempts by lifeboat crews to attach a tug, the Kingston, so that the Pilsum could be taken to safety. The towline then snapped, and crews had to begin the process again, as all vessels drifted ever closer to dangerous cliffs.

Mr Sanderson said: “All this was done in pitch black, in gale force eight – with gusts up to gale force 10, that’s winds up to around 70mph. The waves were around 20 or 25 feet high. At one stage the volunteers at the lookout could see the lifeboat on the crest of a wave higher than the cargo ship.”

He added: “If they had run into St Albans Head it just doesn’t bear thinking about. They were extremely lucky. The crews – all volunteers – saved lives and prevented the ship going onto the rocks. If that had happened it would have been an environmental calamity.”

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has written to all involved to thank them for their brave actions, including the Coastwatch volunteers at St Albans Head and Portland, who provide a unique vantage point over the coast. Mr Sanderson said Whitehall was informed by the Coastguard at the time of the incident, because of the risk of a major pollution incident.

He added that the risk was such that, if there had been a different outcome, it would be comparable to the Penlee disaster of 1981, when 16 people died, including eight volunteer lifeboatmen, who went to the aid of the vessel Union Star when its engines failed in heavy seas off Cornwall.

Mr Sanderson said: “It was a very, very close call, and was an excellent example of the joint professionalism and commitment of all those involved including the National Coastwatch teams.”