THE history books are full of tales of tall ships being rescued from the rocks off the Sussex coast.

However, with advances in GPS technology and most ships now fitted with engines rather than sails, such rescues belong in a different age.

But this was the scene on Wednesday night as the Eastbourne RNLI crew was called to assist the 105 tonne Lady of Avenel.

The ship and its crew became stranded near Sovereign Harbour at 9.30pm.

Eastbourne coxswain Mark Sawyer and his six crew members dropped what they were doing and raced to the scene.

Mr Sawyer said: “We’ve never been called to something that big.

“When we were paged about the casualty, we got told it was a 32-metre vessel.

“Then we got there and saw it - it had no drive or power to take it anywhere and was stuck in the rough sea.”

The captain of the Lady of Avenel dropped anchor to steady the ship but the near gale force winds began dragging the vessel towards the rocks.

The captain, fearing for his ship and his six crew members, tried to haul the vessel back on course but the wind was too strong. Fearing the ship would be wrecked on the rocks he called for help.

Mr Sawyer and his crew managed to toss a towline to the captain and they began the difficult task of hauling the ship away from the rocks and back to the safety of the harbour.

Mr Sawyer, 55, said: “We had to manoeuvre the vessel close to us but it was a real struggle in the conditions.

“It was damaged and we knew the weather was going to get worse - and it did, but you can’t rush the process.

“The captain sounded extremely worried for his vessel and the six people on it when he put in the request for the lifeboat.”

He said the gap to get into the harbour was “extremely tight” and “not easy” to get through with the ship.

Mr Sawyer, who first volunteered with the RNLI in 1990 before becoming coxswain in 2001, said: “We had to go very slowly through the gap - you can’t go in at the same time.

“There is the wreck of the Second World War Barn Hill as you enter so you have to avoid that.

“We didn’t finish until 1am.”

There were no injuries and no further damage to the Lady of Avenel.

He said: “The captain said we were very professional in the way we dealt with the situation and he made some really nice comments about us.

“On the radio he was very concerned about safety, obviously.

“When we rescued him you could hear the relief in his voice.

“It was an incident that could have ended disastrously.”