A ROWING cutter crew were rescued and the entire sailing programme wiped out as bad weather took its toll on the Dartmouth Regatta.
The cutter, a two-masted replica from Lord Nelson's famous ship HMS Victory and with seven people on board, came within 20 feet of disaster.
It was being driven on to the Mew Stone rock off Froward Point after it was caught out by heavy seas and strong winds.
Froward Point National Coastwatch Institution's lookout, which overlooks the mouth of the River Dart, spotted the vessel in danger and raised the alarm around 11am
Station manager Bob Tozer said: "Problems with the rigging meant the craft had lost its sails, and with a strong northwesterly blowing, was in very real danger of blowing on to the rocks less than half a mile away.
"NCI watchkeepers immediately advised Brixham Coast Guard of events and were tasked with monitoring the situation whilst those on board endeavoured to reset the sails.
"However, the crew were unsuccessful and although they manned the oars to try and gain safety, they were clearly making no headway.
"Advised of the situation by Froward Point, Brixham Coast Guard requested Dart Inshore Lifeboat to launch.
"In addition, Froward Point was able to advise Brixham of other crafts in the area who were in a position to help – a request which was met by the Royal Dart Yacht Club's safety RIB, which was approximately three miles to the southwest. The fishing vessel Britannia of Beesands was also nearby and immediately went to assist."
Dartmouth Royal Regatta safety boat took them in tow and then handed them over to the Dart inshore lifeboat.
Rough sea and heavy winds also meant the regatta's sailing races, involving 150 yachts, had to be cancelled.
Lifeboat spokesman John Fenton said of the cutter drama: "They got within 20 feet of the Mew Stone. They were rowing very hard and they managed to get themselves across the face of the rock. It could have been very nasty."
The cutter is a replica of one of the longboats that Nelson's sailors would have used to get to shore when they weren't winning victories at Trafalgar and The Nile — and is normally based with the preserved Trafalgar flagship HMS Victory at Portsmouth.
It has been a feature at Dartmouth Royal Regatta for some years as part of the collection of classic boats which gather in the Dart for the major rowing and sailing event.
The Dart lifeboat station in Coronation Park, Dartmouth, was in the middle of their regatta open day when the alert was sounded.
Most of the crew were there already and they managed to launch the lifeboat in just two minutes while members of the public had ringside seats to see the lifeboat going into action for the real thing.
Mr Fenton said that winds outside the river were gusting from force four to gale force five yesterday morning as the cutter got into trouble.
Sea and wind conditions were so bad that the Royal Dart Yacht Club was forced to cancel all the sailing races involving some 150 yachts from 16 footers to 45ft grand prix racers.
Yacht club chairman Hugh Conway said that the unexpected south westerly winds had caused the unsafe sea conditions.
"The sea conditions allied to the strong winds meant that the boats were not able to race," he said.
Yesterday's rescue was the second in two days that involved the Dart inshore lifeboat.
On Thursday a 16ft speed boat trying to land just down the coast from Dartmouth at Blackpool Sands got caught in the surf and swamped.
Three adults and two children aged 10 and 13 years were thrown into the sea and brought safely to shore by the RNLI lifeguards stationed at the popular holiday beach.
The lifeboat crew found the speedboat sunk with only its bow section floating. They managed to bail it out and then tow it back to the River Dart — from where it had originally been launched.