Mountainous seas are threatening to sink four stranded ships after a series of dramatic rescues saw more than 40 crew and passengers winched to safety or taken off in lifeboats as gales swept over Britain.

Salvage crews are losing hope of righting the stricken ferry Riverdance, which ran aground off Blackpool, and the trawler Spinning Dale, which is wedged on rocks in one of the country's most sensitive marine nature reserves off the Scottish island of St Kilda.

An attempt to airlift the seriously injured captain of a cargo ship caught up in a powerful storm, 200 miles off the Irish coast, was abandoned last night due to fierce winds and high seas. The captain of the Horncliff received serious spinal and internal injuries when his vessel encountered the force 10 storm. A helicopter from RAF Chivenor in Devon, assisted by a Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from Scotland, spent nearly an hour over the ship trying to get him off.

Squadron Leader Barry Neilson told Sky News: "The crew of the helicopter have spent the best part of an hour trying to get their crewmen on to the vessel, but it is moving around so much in the high seas they have been unable to do that safely. They have now assessed that it's safer for the master to remain where he is."

The Horncliff, which was carrying bananas from the Caribbean to Dover, is on its way to Cork, where the captain will be landed and treated today.

Cracks have widened in the hull of the ยฃ2m Portrush lifeboat which was blown on to a reef on Rathlin Island while trying to help a fishing boat off the coast of Northern Ireland. All six compartments of the specialised vessel have filled with water and an emergency operation to drain 4,000 litres of fuel is being planned.

Anti-pollution teams are also trying to reach the Riverdance, which is carrying 100 tonnes of heavy oil, and the Spinning Dale, with 8,000 litres of marine diesel and 400 of heavy-grade lubricating oil.

Iain Ross of Scottish Natural Heritage said that access to the trawler was impossible because of the weather, but scientists hoped that any leaks would be dispersed by the sheer scale of the seas. St Kilda is a world heritage site and home to Europe's largest colony of seabirds, with exceptional marine life around the coastal maze of underwater tunnels, caves and arches.

The National Trust for Scotland is taking steps to prevent rats escaping from the ship, which could spell disaster for the island's mammals and birds' nests.

The owners of the Riverdance, whose cargo of 50 lorries broke free in the hold when a huge wave hit the ship, said that the crew had been "fantastic" in appalling conditions. Kevin Hobbs, chief executive of Seatruck Ferries, said: "They took control of the situation, got the four passengers safely off, and stabilised the vessel. Unfortunately in the early hours the weather continued to deteriorate, and the captain decided to abandon ship."

John Matthews, from the RNLI in Fleetwood, near Blackpool, said: "The conditions were terrible, some of the worst the lifeboat's ever been out in. I imagine a few of our boys are feeling a bit queasy.

"The two crews and the RAF helicopters did a wonderful job. Listening to it on the radio, everything was very calm and professional. I was quite amazed by how calm the master of the ship was."

Crowds of sightseers including children braved snow showers yesterday to watch from the beach as the Riverdance listed at 60 degrees 400 yards from the shore near Blackpool. Salvage specialists, including a team of divers from the Netherlands, were hoping the high tide last night might lift the vessel free.

The passengers and 19 crew are recovering well after treatment for hypothermia at hospital in Blackpool. RAF winchman Rich Taylor said both the helicopters and the ferry had been buffeted by the gales in a "tricky" operation. "It took some time to get the first rope down to the boat and unfortunately we then lost contact with it - the boat just moved away in a big swirl," he said. "So we had another bash at it and managed to get another rope down."

All 14 Spanish seamen from the Spinning Dale were recovering in Stornaway last night, two with mild hypothermia, after being winched from the trawler.

Snow, meanwhile, moved relentlessly southwards, leaving lorries stuck in drifts in the Scottish lowlands and north of England. The Skye, Erskine and Forth road bridges remained closed and several lorries were overturned on exposed stretches of the A1 in Yorkshire.

Last night the first major road closure south of the border saw the trans-Pennine A66 impassable because of drifting snow on the summit between Brough and Scotch Corner on the A1.

Durham police and the Highways Agency were called to rescue an estimated 200 motorists, including a coachload of pensioners, stranded in heavy snows on the A66. Between 25 and 30 lorry drivers were last night sitting out the blizzard in their cabs, five miles west of Bowes.

A Durham police spokeswoman said: "The only people left are HGV drivers, and we have left them until last because they have the facilities, such as generators, to keep themselves warm."

The Department for Transport and drivers' organisations warned motorists to plan journeys carefully and council gritting teams were alerted across the country.

More than 6,000 homes in the north of England were without electricity yesterday after snow and high winds damaged power lines. CE Electric UK, which manages the power supply in the north east, north Yorkshire and north-east Lincolnshire, said emergency plans were in place but its engineers were struggling to reach the damaged parts of the network.

Lifeboats were launched to help small craft in trouble from stations at Alderney, Minehead, St Davids and Tenby and on the Thames at Chiswick in west London. The RNLI's operations director Michael Vlasto said: "It is in severe weather that our crews are most needed. They are brave and dedicated volunteers, on call 24/7. When you consider they head off into such fierce conditions to save the lives of others, with little thought for their own safety, they are truly remarkable."

Temperatures are expected to continue falling today.