Lifeboat rescue 'most challenging call-out' for RNLI crew
THE COXSWAIN of the Rosslare Lifeboat which rescued the crew of a stricken yacht off the Wexford coast at the height of Hurricane Ophelia said he had never experienced such appalling weather at sea in 32 years with the RNLI.
Eamonn O'Rourke said the lifeboatmen had to contend with storm force wind speeds averaging 55 knots (100 km/h) on the perilous journey out to the foundering yacht, with a hurricane-force wind speed recorded of 72 knots (130 km/h) on the return with the boat under tow.
'I've never experienced anything like that,' he told this newspaper. 'You don't want to be out there in that kind of weather.'
He said he 'was a bit gobsmacked' that he got the phone call to say a Mayday had been received on Monday as Hurricane Ophelia bore down, the strongest storm in more than 50 years to hit Ireland.
'I didn't really know how someone would be out there in that,' he said. 'Everyone was braced for the storm and we were all looking after our own boats when we got the call.'
'We picked a decent route and made sure we had all the right fellas and that an experienced crew was chosen. I briefed the crew and proceeded onwards.
'The conditions outside the harbour were starting to freshen and by midday we were expecting a good hurricane and we certainly got that wind wise. I've never experienced anything like that,' said Eamonn.
'It took us 35 minutes to reach the 10 metre yacht 'Second Love', which had been off Blackwater Head, 10 miles off Rosslare Europort.
'He had drifted a good bit further north and was very relieved to see us. They had got an awful hammering for a few hours. They were still under power, but had been swamped a good few times.'
Eamonn said that if the rescue had taken place an hour later, the lifeboatmen would have been looking for a liferaft rather than a yacht.
He said the lifeboat circled the yacht a few times to decide how best to carry out the rescue and managed to get a 'casualty drogue' to the the crew of the yacht, which acts like an underwater parachute stabilising the casualty once streamed out behind it, providing an opportunity to take it under tow.
'After a couple of attempts we got the tow on board and had to make the decision to carry on with the wind to Arklow, which would have have put us in the eye of the storm, or to head for home, so we decided to head back to Rosslare which at that time was 16 miles away.
'We were fearful that the cleats where the rope was attached might come away. It was fairly challenging, the swells were coming from the beam on to the bow.. it was violent and we were right in the thick of it and getting it from all angles,' said Eamonn.
He said that as the lifeboat and yacht were getting closer to Rosslare, there was less of a swell in the lee of the land, but the wind speed was increasing.
'I have never witnessed that windspeed at sea,' he said, adding that the lifeboat got closer to the port, the tow line was shortened a couple of times to make the tow more manouverable. By the time they got to the west pier at the harbour, shore helpers were on hand.
Asked what he thought about having to put out on a rescue in such conditions, Eamonn said:
'We don't ask these questions when we go out or when we come home,' he said. He said any experienced seafarer would have been aware the hurricane was on the way. The rescued boat had been sailing from Southampton to Malahide, crewed by two Englishmen and a Welshman, but Eamonn made no comment about the wisdom of them putting to sea in such conditions.
Eamonn said that despite the appalling weather he hadn't feared for his own life, but was naturally concerned for the safety of the crew and for their families at home.
'We have confidence in the boat, but this was probably the most challenging shout I've had in 32 years as a lifeboatman.
'We were very relieved to get back shore. All the crew had a hand in it, everyone played their part on the day.'
Eamonn said the yacht's crew were accommodated in a local B&B.
'We got them sorted out. I wouldn't say they would ever want to witness something like that again. They told us that coming down off the crests of the waves they were doing 17 knots at one stage and it was getting stronger by the minute.'
The day after the rescue, the yacht departed for Malahide, with advice that with Storm Brian on the way, they would be better off in a marina.
The brave crew of the Rosslare lifeboat who took part in the rescue were: Stephen Breen, Eamonn O'Rourke, Micheal Ferguson, Michael Nicholas, Richard Parish, Keith Morris, Art Sheil and Paudraig Quirke.