A ferry carrying 23 passengers and crew members was stranded by high waves and winds in the Irish Sea on Thursday night, and helicopters were being sent to rescue them.

The ferry was listing at 45 degrees in 70 mph winds, British Broadcasting Corp. and Sky News television said.

"Conditions are certainly appalling, both for the people who need rescue and indeed for the rescuers," Sky News quoted Michael Mulford, an official with the Royal Air Force, as saying. "What we have is 23 people, all in life jackets, all inside a passenger compartment on what is a dual cargo ship and passenger ship called the River Dance."

He called the rescue operation "a major incident."

The RAF and the Royal Navy were sending helicopters to rescue people aboard the ferry, which was about eight miles west of the northwestern English port of Fleetwood, the networks said.

Tug boats also were rushing to the scene to take part in the difficult rescue operation, Sky News said.