Home Energy Scotland - Win £500 towards your energy bills

The sinking of the Maia

John Coutts keeps the 15 kopek to this very day.

Fifty years ago today, on 2 February 1962, the Russian trawler Maia drifted on to the rocks near the Broch of Houbie at Fetlar in the early evening.

There were 23 men in the crew. A lifeboat from a nearby tug managed to get 11 of the men off the trawler, but on its second attempt it was damaged when a strong wave swept the small boat against the side of the Maia.

This left Fetlar Auxiliary Coastguard with the task of rescuing the remaining 12 men. They were taken ashore by breeches buoy, one by one, and housed on the island overnight. No one was badly injured, but the trawler was lost.

I was 11 years old and living in Houbie at the time. It was a Friday evening, and about 5.30pm we were aware of a loud explosion. We rushed to the door to see what it was, and could clearly see a distress rocket arching high in the sky. It was a wild night with a worsening south-west gale, and it was obvious that one of the many Russian trawlers sheltering in the Wick of Tresta was in trouble.

This is the kind of exciting adventure that young boys dream of. Jimmy Thomason lived close by, and he was about 10 at the time. We teamed up and decided to go with the auxiliary coastguard men to help in the rescue. However we were told in no uncertain terms to stay well away.

We then adopted another plan; to go down to the area immediately south of Houbie where we could look directly across to where the stricken trawler lay.

On our way down the fields in the darkness we were suddenly aware of something flapping in the wind nearby. We felt certain it was a Russian from the ship, so we took a wide detour to avoid “him”. Daylight the next day revealed our “Russian” to be a fertilizer bag caught on a fence post.

We reached the cliffs and for some reason decided to flash our torches at all the Russian trawlers lying in the bay. The ships were scanning the shoreline with powerful searchlights, and as soon as we flashed our little torches at them, we found ourselves suddenly caught in the beams of several dozen bright searchlights. I suppose the Russians thought we might be survivors. I think we hid behind some rocks after that.

A breeches buoy used to rescue - Photo: Courtesy of Fetlar Museum

We had a perfect view of the Maia, lying over at an unnatural angle. The lights of the ship were still on when we started watching the rescue. We watched the dim lights of the little lifeboat from the tug sweep fast towards the Maia, driven by the wind, and crawl back to the tug slowly against the wind. We were facing the gale, so we could clearly hear the shouts of the men on shore, maybe half a mile away, trying to get a line across to the Maia. I recall a lot of strong language being used that night.

There were many flares sent up to help light the area. The flares drifted directly over us eventually, and by the time they reached us they were quite low. I remember seeing the flares, floating on tiny parachutes, drifting overhead just before the lights extinguished. The angle that the Maia was lying at kept increasing as time went on. Then the lights of the ship started flickering, and eventually went out. It’s the only time I have watched a ship sinking, and I hope I never do again.

With all the men safely rescued, they were taken to Houbie in a tractor trailer. The men were distributed around the houses. My mother and I were staying with Martha Henderson at the time, and she agreed to take two of them.

We had the first mate and the cook. They were an unlikely couple. The cook, who was the spitting image of Kenny Ball, the jazz player who was popular at the time, was very dark, short and stocky. The first mate, in comparison, was fair, very tall and thin.

The men, who were actually not Russians but from Ukraine, were very grateful for the hospitality offered to them. They managed to tune the old valve radio to a Ukranian music station, which seemed to cheer them up a lot. They were also amused by my comics, which featured a character on the back page called Jonah, who always managed to sink a ship. They wanted to take some comics back with them, and I agreed, but they were told the next day by officials that they were not allowed to take anything from the island.

The next day was grey and cold, but the wind had eased to a stiff breeze, and it was mainly dry. The men from the Maia all gathered down at the small pier at the beach of Houbie, where a launch from one of the Russian ships came in to take them back. They all had dry clothes on, given to them from the various households they had stayed in, but they were told to take off the dry clothes and give them back, and put their own wet clothes on instead.

Before the launch left Fetlar, the captain stepped back on shore, took a handful of coins from his pocket, and gave one to each of the children gathered there. There was maybe four or five of us. I can’t remember exactly, but as I write this I am looking at a small silver coin, about the size of an old sixpence. It’s a 15 kopek coin, dated 1953, and it was given to me by the captain of the Maia. Before stepping back on to the launch, he said to us children in his quite good English: “Keep this coin and remember the night the ship sank on your island.”

Fetlar Auxiliary Coastguard were awarded the Ministry of Transport Shield for the best wreck service of 1962 for their part in the rescue that night. They were the first Auxiliary Coastguard in the country to receive it. All the Fetlar houses that kept the remnants of the Maia crew that night received an official letter of thanks from the Russian Embassy in London.

The only other thing I remember about that time, 50 years ago today, is that we were due to have a film show in the local hall that night. The Highlands and Islands Film Guild distributed films around the rural areas of Scotland back then, and Fetlar, as well as many other rural parts, had a film show every two weeks. On Friday, 2 February 1962, Fetlar was intending to screen a film called “Tommy the Toreador,” starring Tommy Steele. The film was never shown in Fetlar because of the sinking of the Maia that night. Perhaps the Russians did us a favour after all.

John Coutts

Categories