LIFE-SAVERS talked about the huge two-day search for fishing boat Nicola Faith during an episode of BBC2's Saving Lives at Sea.

Llandudno and Rhyl RNLI were already aware of the whelk fishing boat and its crew, having been called out to a number of incidents involving the vessel over the last two years, with one taking place just months before its disappearance.

But this occasion proved different: weather conditions were “relatively calm” and yet the boat could not be traced.

The vessel had failed to return to Rhos-on-Sea harbour as expected on the night of January 27 and crew members Ross Ballantine, 39, Carl McGrath, 34, and Alan Minard, 20, had not returned calls from the Coastguard.


Nicola Faith leaving Conwy Harbour. Picture: Roger Fox

Nicola Faith leaving Conwy Harbour. Picture: Roger Fox


Talking on the programme about the multi-agency search that ensued, Llandudno RNLI coxswain Graham Heritage said: "I got a call from the boathouse and they told me that the Coastguard were calling Nicola Faith on channel 16.


Graham Heritage, Llandudno RNLI. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2

Graham Heritage, Llandudno RNLI. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2


“We knew Nicola Faith; we’d been out to her possibly two times over a number of years. But on this particular day the Coastguard kept on calling her and calling her. No-one was responding back.

“On launching [I thought] it’s just another tow job, broken down and we’d tow them into Conwy. The tide was quite favourable. It was just a routine job, we thought.

“I have been to two or three fishing boats that have actually sank and as you were getting to the area where you think they are you can smell the diesel, you can see oil on the water, or you’ll get fenders coming up or fish boxes.


An Llandudno RNLI crew searches for the Nicola Faith on the evening after it went missing. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2

An Llandudno RNLI crew searches for the Nicola Faith on the evening after it went missing. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2


“I remember looking into the waves thinking, ‘come on, give us something, there’s got to be something here’. Then as the day grew on into the evening, the wind picked up and it got fairly rough, and it went dark, and we didn’t find a thing. Nothing at all, no trace whatsoever.”

Jonathan Woodhead, Llandudno crew member, said: “We’re used to seeing the little red boat on the bay, going backwards and forwards about their business.

“For that time of year the weather conditions were quite clear; we had good visibility; the sea was relatively calm.


Jonathan Coe, Llandudno RNLI. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2

Jonathan Woodhead, Llandudno RNLI. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2


“Our hope was that we would come across a life raft or something that had enabled the crew to get out of the water and still be afloat. But as time went on, things started to get more and more concerning.

“The mood when we got back was very subdued. Usually there is quite a lot of banter; there was nothing that night. We just did what we had to do in silence, got changed and made our way home.”

After four laps of the Nicola Faith’s last known location, Rhyl RNLI were called for assistance and were soon followed by Coastguard crews including a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft, and RNLI crews from Conwy, Beaumaris and Hoylake.

Rhyl RNLI searched for debris in the water, with one crew member urging others to look out for “boxes, fishing boxes, fishing tackle, anything”.

Colin Jones, Rhyl crew member, said: “We didn’t know what we were launching to, so to get out as quickly as possible and start that search was our priority.

“When you’re out searching for three casualties your mind makes you want to see something that’s going to be the successful outcome, and then when you find it’s just another piece of driftwood it can be quite disheartening.


Colin Jones, Rhyl RNLI. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2

Colin Jones, Rhyl RNLI. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2


“We checked all the navigation buoys in the area, just in case someone was clinging onto the buoy or there was anything pinned up against it.”

Andrew Wilde, Rhyl coxswain, said: “When we’re given the first instructions, initial reports can be very short and sketchy, so what may appear to be a simple call-out might then develop into quite a lengthy, complicated search. We usually expect the unexpected.

“A few months before we’d come across the Nicola Faith for a completely different, unrelated call-out.

“I actually went to the bow of the boat to speak to the guys aboard, so we knew what colour she was, we knew roughly the size, and I believe it to be the three crew who were missing that we did speak to.


Andrew Wilde, Rhyl RNLI. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2

Andrew Wilde, Rhyl RNLI. Picture: Saving Lives at Sea/BBC2


“At this point we didn’t if the fishing boat was still afloat so anything we saw we were keen to go and check out.

“When the Coastguard makes the decision to stand down all assets it’s a real hard decision to take. We were thinking about the families; all of those families were waiting, didn’t know what had happened, and neither did we.”


Picture: Saving Lives at Sea, BBC2.

Picture: Saving Lives at Sea, BBC2.


The crew were sent out again the following morning but hopes of locating the Nicola Faith and its missing crew members were fading fast. The rescuers were given a boost by the families of the missing men, who were waiting at the beach to watch the search begin.

Mr Woodhead said: “Seeing the families on the beach, it makes you want to bring the boys home for a positive outcome. We were desperate really to do what we needed to do.”

An “extensive” search was carried out as crews went to the most easterly and westerly parts of the coast but weather conditions were worse that day: there was “a bite to the wind” with “nothing to be found”, and finally the search was called off.

Mr Jones said: “I remember the moment the search was finally called off by the Coastguard. There were no other avenues to pursue and it was really upsetting not to take anything home to the family for closure.”

Mr Wilde added: “It was a heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach that there was nothing more than you could do.”

A crowd of people had gathered at Llandudno Lifeboat Station and applauded the crews as they returned for the final time in the search.

Mr Heritage said: “That was very humbling. We go out and save people, that’s what we do, and on this occasion we hadn’t done it. Everyone had gone out there and given their all, but we’d all come home with nothing at all.

“It would be another 40 odd days before the sea actually gave up Ross, Carl and Alan. There is a relief for the families; at least they’ve got closure, at least they can lay their loved ones to rest.”

Sadly, the bodies of Mr Ballantine, Mr McGrath and Mr Minard were found on the Wirral and Blackpool in April.

The search for the missing boat had been launched by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) in February, followed by a private search by deep water specialist David Mearns funded by a £68,000 fundraiser.

The wreck of the Nicola Faith was found in April, about 2.2 miles off Rhos Point. The vessel was raised from the sea bed by MAIB in May and an investigation into the cause of its sinking remains ongoing.

The families are understood to have been kept fully updated on the investigation.