An accident aboard a Westcountry trawler in which a crew member had his thumb severed proves the Government’s decision to axe emergency helicopter cover is “absolutely crazy”, fishermen have said.
Aaron Mazs was injured as the Spanish Eyes III hauled its nets 10 miles off Lyme Regis on Thursday morning.
Skipper Luke Wason immediately alerted coastguards and the Portland helicopter, which is being axed in 2017, was on scene in 10 minutes. Mr Mazs, 38, was flown to Salisbury District Hospital where surgeons attempted to re-attach his severed thumb.
Mr Wason praised the response of coastguards and the helicopter crew but said it highlighted the future plight of fishermen who found themselves in distress.
“I called the coastguards about 15 seconds after the accident,” 34-year-old Mr Wason said. “The helicopter was with us about 10 minutes later.
“In future though it could have been half an hour away or more which is a big difference. The helicopter at Portland is going and it doesn’t seem as though we can do anything about it. It is a real shame and it is putting peoples’ lives at risk.”
The Government confirmed earlier this year that Newquay will be the sole search-and-rescue helicopter base on the Westcountry coast after it awarded the contract to US-headquartered Bristow Helicopters.
The privatisation deal ends 70 years of a service run by the RAF and Royal Navy squadrons with helicopters due to be withdrawn from RNAS Culdrose, near Helston, Cornwall, and RMB Chivenor near Braunton, North Devon.
The civilian search-and-rescue helicopter based at Portland, Dorset, has also been ditched. From 2017, the nearest base on the south coast will be Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire.
Mr Wason’s father Paul, who co-owns the trawler, said their arguments for keeping the base at Portland had “fallen on deaf ears”.
“When an accident happens, especially something like this morning, it just highlights the fact that we need to helicopter to be kept in Portland,” the 67-year-old, who has been fishing for more than 50 years, said.
“Speed is of the essence and if you have got to wait 35 minutes for a helicopter from Lee-on-Solent, compared to 10 minutes from Portland, then you are talking about the difference between life and death.
“It all comes down to money and what the Government is doing is putting a price on peoples’ lives. It is absolutely crazy.
“While you can never be complacent as a fisherman, you do feel safer knowing help is close at hand if you need it.”
The Department for Transport said the new contract helicopters will be able to reach a larger area of the UK within one hour of take-off than is currently possible.
Ten bases, which will be operated 24-hours a day, are being located near areas of high incident rates. Based on historic incident data, it is estimated there will be an overall improvement in flying times to incidents from 23 to 19 minutes.
The handover, the result of Labour’s push for privatisation in 2006, will begin in 2015 and be fully up-and-running in 2017.