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I have been at sea for 30 years and never seen anything like it. It wasn’t a whale. It was a submarine

The dramatic opening moments of BBC drama Vigil shows Scots fishing boat, the Mhairi Finnea, dragged beneath the waves after being snagged by a submarine
The dramatic opening moments of BBC drama Vigil shows Scots fishing boat, the Mhairi Finnea, dragged beneath the waves after being snagged by a submarine

A fishing skipper who fears a submarine almost dragged his boat under while off the Outer Hebrides has called for a fresh inquiry into the incident.

Angus Macleod spoke out as a plotline in BBC drama Vigil revolves around the sinking of a fishing trawler off his native Barra by a so-far- unidentified submarine.

Macleod believes his boat and crew were almost sunk in identical circumstances six years ago. Just a month later, a British ­submarine snagged and dragged a fishing trawler, the MV Karen, at speed in the Irish Sea.

The incident happened a month after Macleod, 52, said he and his four crew were “extremely lucky” when his net was continually dragged in front of his 62ft boat off the Isle of Lewis.

The Royal Navy has said there were no British or Nato submarines in the area at the time but there had been speculation Russian submarines had been operating off the Scottish coast.

© SYSTEM
Skipper Angus Macleod in front of his former boat, Aquarius, which he believes had a brush with a sub

In the opening scenes of the six-part Vigil, which continues tonight, a Russian submarine is suspected of sinking the trawler as the drama, mirroring real life, shows the Royal Navy delaying any admission of submarine involvement.

In 1990, the Antares, a trawler out of Carradale, in Kintyre, was sunk by HMS Trenchant, a Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine, killing all four crew.

Macleod’s 41-year-old wooden Aquarius boat was fishing in 360ft of water about 10 miles east of the Butt of Lewis on March 10, 2015, when the incident happened.

“There’s not a day I don’t think about what happened that night. We were very fortunate and there’s no doubt in my mind it was a submarine,” he said. “I would like a re-­investigation. It took them four years to admit the Antares tragedy.

“The MoD [Ministry of Defence] has never talked to me about my incident, but every one of us on board know they had a lucky escape that night. From day one I found every door shut to me over an investigation. It was almost like they wanted to bury this as quickly as possible.

 

“I lodged an incident report with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch but that came to nothing.

“Fishermen need to feel safe from submarines. The submarine that snagged us knew it had and we are grateful it took the action it did, otherwise we would not be here. There is no doubt it will happen to somebody again.

“I hope lessons will be learned because the potential for disaster still exists.”

The scene from Vigil

The father-of-two suffered £20,000 damage to his boat and loss of fishing. He sold the Aquarius two years later and he now fishes with his replacement trawler Grianan Oir, skippered by his 21-year-old son Michael.

The Aquarius incident ­took place in the run-up to Europe’s biggest war games taking place off the west coast of Scotland. Exercise Joint Warrior involved more than 50 ships, including submarines. The MV Karen was snagged during the war games.

“I don’t know which submarine we encountered – allied or otherwise – just that we did,” added Macleod. “Since we reported our incident other fishermen have contacted me to say have also had similar encounters over the years. We need honest answers for the sake of safety.”

Recalling the incident, Macleod said the crew had two nets out when the boat suddenly slowed down. “Before we started to haul we heard a rumble. I heard the chains rattle, which is a sign of an obstruction,” he said.

The port net ­suddenly moved in front of the boat, while the other continued to lay astern.

He said he had to “up the revs” on the engine to keep ahead of the net to prevent it becoming entangled on the propeller.

During 15 anxious minutes the boat was constantly manoeuvred in front of the moving net, only for the net to go forward again!

“It kept going forward and we had to repeat the manoeuvre four times to stay ahead,” said Macleod.

“The winch became increasingly under strain as we tried to haul the rope. There was no way the net was snagged on the bottom. We were fishing well off the bottom. It only ended when the dog rope, which attaches the top and bottom ends of the net, was cut by the propeller.

“I have been at sea for over 30 years and never experienced anything like that.

“We knew what was going on was very odd. The dog rope on the net had been pulled higher and cut by the propellor – it should have been at least six feet away from the propeller.

© SYSTEM
The drama showed a fishing boat being pulled underwater

“I had been told there were no MoD submarines north of Neist Point on Skye that day – and no Nato submarines in the area. But that doesn’t tally with what I was previously told by the coastguard. It is possible a non-Nato submarine could be involved.

“It was not a whale. We have had whales in the nets before and the net is all twisted afterwards. Whatever it was, was human-powered.”

The trawler had to be towed back to port by the Stornoway lifeboat. During subsequent repairs it was discovered four of the five one-inch bolts – held by locking nuts – that connect the steering motor with the rudder had come out and the other was loose from the strain of the ordeal.

The Royal Navy has maintained it was not responsible for the Aquarius incident. “We can confirm that a UK submarine was not involved in this incident,” it said.

The Royal Navy said: “The safety of life of fishing vessel crews is of paramount importance and overrides all other considerations for Royal Navy submarines operating in waters where UK vessels engaged in fishing may be operating.”

It said submarines adhered to a strict code of practice to maintain the safety of fishing vessels.

It added: “If there is any doubt as to if a fishing vessel is close enough to pose a safety risk, the submarine will assume it to be the case and carry out these procedures.”

Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said: “Submarines are an ever-present potential threat – and I emphasise the word potential – to fishermen, especially off the west coast of Scotland.

“The tragedy of the Antares has been well-documented and in at least one other case – mercifully without loss of life – the Royal Navy unfortunately was slow to admit its involvement.

“Submarine ­commanders and crew need to be aware of fishing activities and deploy the sophisticated technology available to them to keep clear of fishing vessels, thus avoiding unnecessarily endangering human life.”

Vigil has become the most-watched new drama series this year with the first two episodes watched by 10.2 million viewers.

People have been hooked on the show after seeking the shocking death of actor Martin Compston’s character, Navy Officer Craig Burke, just eight ­minutes into the first episode.

Doctor Foster star Suranne Jones plays DCI Amy Sylvia who is tasked with finding out the real cause of Craig Burke’s death and who killed him, while subplots question the nationality of the sub responsible for dragging the trawler down as the incident threatens a new Cold War.