1936: Daunt Rock rescue

On 7 February 1936, Ballycotton lifeboat volunteers endured 49 hours at sea in a gale and bitter cold to save the crew of the Daunt Rock lightship. 
Bernard Gribble painting of the Ballycotton lifeboat rescuing the crew of the Daunt Rock lightahip.
Bernard Gribble painting of the Ballycotton lifeboat rescuing the crew of the Daunt Rock lightship

In one of the most demanding rescues ever undertaken, Ballycotton lifeboat volunteers endured 49 hours at sea, 25 hours without food and only 3 hours sleep to save the lives of eight men onboard a drifting lightship.

On 7 February 1936, a strong south-eastern gale with rain and snow hit the village of Ballycotton. The storm ripped rocks from the quay and vast waves swept the harbour, spraying over the 59m lighthouse.

The next morning, an SOS was received by Ballycotton Lifeboat Station. The Comet, a lightship stationed at Daunt Rock, had broken from its moorings in the storm and was drifting without engine power. Eight men were aboard the Comet, which had moved so far from her position, she posed a hazard to navigation for other ships.

The rescue

As soon as the news of the Comet hit Ballycotton, Coxswain Patrick Sliney launched their lifeboat, the Mary Stanford. They fought enormous waves before locating the Comet riding at anchor, a quarter of a mile from Daunt Rock.

The Mary Stanford made multiple attempts to throw a steel cable to the Comet to tow her into port, but the heavy waves pushed the ships apart and snapped the cable.

The lifeboat waited by until nightfall before travelling to Cobh to get stronger cables. The Innisfallen and HMS Tenedos stood by. The lifeboat crew had gone all day without food, so ate at Cobh, slept for 3 hours and changed into dry clothes before returning.

They had returned to Daunt Rock by the early morning. The storm was still strong and a thick fog had covered the area. These conditions made it impossible to complete the rescue, but the Mary Stanford remained at sea all day and night. When the Commissioners of Irish Lights vessel, Isolda, arrived to stand by, the lifeboat was able to refuel at Cobh and returned immediately.

As the storm got worse that evening, the Comet drifted perilously close to Daunt Rock. Coxswain Patrick Sliney was forced to act quickly and made the decision to get alongside the ship so the crew could jump onto the lifeboat.

On the first attempt, one crew member reached the lifeboat. By the third attempt, five more members of the crew had jumped across to the lifeboat successfully. This left two men holding onto the rails of the Comet, but their exhaustion made the fourth and fifth rescue attempts futile. On the sixth attempt, Sliney ordered his crew to drag the exhausted men aboard as the lifeboat went alongside.

The Mary Stanford then sailed to Cobh, where they disembarked by 11pm, and the lifeboat crew returned to Ballycotton. They had been at sea for 49 hours and away from the station for 3 days. During this time they had gone without food for 25 hours and only had 3 hours sleep. They were very hungry and all suffered from cold and salt burns.

The aftermath

The rescue has since become a key part of RNLI history. It’s one of the most demanding rescues ever undertaken, and a fantastic example of the endurance and hard work of the crews.

A Gold Medal was awarded to Coxswain Patrick Sliney for his bravery and fortitude. Second Coxswain John Lane Walsh and motor mechanic Thomas Sliney were both awarded Silver Medals. Crew members Michael Coffey Walsh, John Shea Sliney, William Sliney and Thomas Walsh were also awarded Bronze Medals for their service.

Their heroic actions have been depicted by artists and even featured in books. In 1974, a painting by Bernard Gribble which portrayed the lifeboat crew dragging the two lightshipmen to safety was featured on the RNLI’s 150th anniversary stamps in the Isle of Man.

Gold Medal service plaque at Ballycotton Lifeboat Station, awarded to Patrick Sliney for the Daunt Rock rescue.

Photo: RNLI / Nigel Millard

Gold Medal service plaque at Ballycotton Lifeboat Station, awarded to Patrick Sliney for the Daunt Rock rescue