26 Sep 2010 - The annual "SOLFIRE" Search and Rescue Exercise took place in the Eastern Solent on Tuesday 21 September and it appears to have been a great success in testing out the contingency plans of the various emergency services who would be involved, should a major marine accident occur within the Solent area.
Responsibility for providing and managing emergency cover for the whole of the Solent Shipping Area, including Portsmouth and Southampton, is shared equally between the Solent Coastguard, the Queens Harbour Master, Portsmouth (QHM) and Associated British Ports at Southampton.
This year QHM led the exercise which was staged off the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour.
The scenario involved the Whitelink vehicle ferry
"St Helen" which had suffered a simulated fire in her engine room during a routine lunchtime crossing from Fishbourne on the Isle of Wight to Portsmouth.
With fifty "Passengers" on board (mainly consisting of off-duty Watchkeepers from NCI Gosport and Lee-on-the-Solent, together with members of the Maritime Volunteer Service and a few other local voluntary organisations) and with her main engines reduced from three to just one, the ferry was forced to heave-to in the middle of Spithead and call for immediate assistance. The situation was made more dramatic when she began to drift with a strong tide which was carrying her towards the Royal Navy's newest and yet to be commissioned warship, the destroyer "Diamond", which lay at anchor nearby.
A Serco Tug had, by this time, been despatched from Portsmouth with members of the Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service Offshore Response Unit on board and was soon on the scene alongside St Helen rendering assistance by putting the emergency team aboard and steering the disabled ferry away from danger.
Meanwhile the general alarm had been sounded on board the ferry and this required all passengers to assemble at the Muster Stations, giving the crew valuable hands-on experience in distributing lifejackets and providing reassurance to large numbers of potentially confused people in an emergency situation.
With the tug assisting, St Helen was soon underway again, having been joined by a Dockyard Pilot and was limping slowly towards the safety of the harbour, when she suddenly lost all power to the remaining engine. This caused a simulated collision with a small oil tanker near the harbour entrance which began posing even more problems when the resulting simulated oil spill was discovered to be blocking the approach to the ferry's normal berth. The vessel was now drifting helplessly in the middle of a very busy harbour with several additional tugs racing to the rescue and thanks to their prompt action, the now completely disabled ferry was brought safely alongside a vacant berth inside the Naval Dockyard where five fire appliances and their crews were waiting to deal with the aftermath of the earlier fire on board, together with Coastguard Rescue Teams and a number of Local Authority Civil Response personnel who had assembled to care for the needs of the passengers.
The success of this exercise has once again emphasised the highly professional spirit of co-operation and teamwork that exists between all the search and rescue organisations that come together to provide safety cover in the busy coastal waters of the Solent.