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A challenging night on the Celtic Sea

The sea state was moderate to rough. Not unusual for the Celtic Sea in mid-December, but challenging conditions for a 13m yacht.

Kilmore lighthouse at night

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Kilmore Quay lifeboat crew are more used to being called out to fishing vessels in the Winter. But at 11pm on Tuesday 16 December 2014, the call came in from the yacht Proteus, struggling in a gale with three Americans onboard.

A changing forecast

Noah, Lynn and Lynn’s dad had set sail from Falmouth for Cork early on Monday morning – with favourable weather forecast. But by Tuesday evening, things were changing. Darkness fell, the waves grew, and the wind swelled to force 7.

Noah tells the story in this gripping blog post: ‘With the main down and flying a tiny scrap of headsail, we blew downwind and kept up with the building waves. We headed as close as we dared to quarter the following seas and the wind coming out of the west.

‘I was manually steering, because no autopilot can handle stuff like that. So Lynn was reading aloud from the Reeds almanac for a place to go. Around 20 miles offshore – also past 10pm – we attempted calling a marina before it got too late to see if we could reach a harbourmaster.’

There was no one on duty at the Kilmore Quay harbourmaster’s office at that hour, but the skipper of the fishing boat Mary Catherine picked up Noah’s VHF call. He recommended calling for the lifeboat.

Paging the lifeboat crew

Lifeboat Crew Member (and off-duty Harbour Constable) Aidan Bates was watching television at home when his phone rang. It was Mary Catherine’s skipper, a friend of his, warning him that he might be in for a rough night. Aidan says: ‘I was actually thinking about going to bed, but when he rang me I thought I’d better hang on for a while.’ Sure enough, 5 minutes later, the pagers went off.

The lifeboat crew that night was mostly made up of experienced fishermen. They and their Tamar class all-weather lifeboat Killarney can handle a gale. But it was still a bumpy ride. As Crew Member Phil Walsh says: ‘It’s very hard to judge at night. When you leave the harbour in the black dark, you’re bracing yourself. You don’t really know what seas you’re hitting until you hit them.’

Phil was on radar duty on the 30-minute journey out, homing in on Proteus’s position. Onboard the yacht, Noah watched the wind speeds rise on the anemometer. 40 knots. 42 knots. The Coastguard confirmed that the lifeboat crew would come and tow them to safety.

Bring them home

Noah writes: ‘And out they came. Like something from a movie, this massive powerboat, lit with millions of candlepower spotlights, came barrelling out of the 4-5m seas as a tank might growl over rolling hills.’ It was too rough to transfer someone aboard Proteus to set up a tow, so Phil tossed a heaving line, with tow rope attached, to Lynn’s dad.

The sailors were tired, but lifeboat Coxswain Eugene Kehoe remembers them doing all the right things: ‘He had enough sail up to try to keep her as steady in the water as he could. They had lifejackets on, and safety lines. And once they got the line on and we started towing, they steered her straight behind us and kept her well.’

It was a 2-hour trip back to Kilmore Quay. With a vessel under tow in poor conditions but no one in immediate danger, it’s best to take it nice and steady. Noah recalls: ‘They dragged all 24,000lb of Proteus through force 8-9 winds and huge waves the 2 hours to safety. In fact, it was like we weren’t even there. They pulled us at over 6 knots as we held on for quite a wild ride. Not one I would ever want to take again.’

Spirits were good onboard the lifeboat. Eugene says: ‘We’re well used to it. Our crew that night were all fishermen or ex-fishermen. It wasn’t the roughest night we’ve ever been out on, or anything like it even. But it would have been a nasty one for a yacht.’

Phil adds: 'We've a good crew and that makes the job easier. Whenever that beeper goes off, we go. You've trust in the man beside you. You trust their judgement and they trust yours, and there's a bond between the crew.'

When they got to Kilmore Quay, it was 2.30am. The lifeboat crew helped tie Proteus up alongside, and invited her worn-out crew up to the lifeboat station for a cup of tea and a biscuit. ‘They could have had something stronger if they’d wanted it! But they were just happy to be ashore,’ Eugene says.

Noah and Lynn stayed in Kilmore Quay for a couple of weeks, fixing up the damage caused that night. Eugene, who runs a local chandlery, says: ‘I got to know Noah pretty well, as he did a lot of work on the boat while he was here. He wanted to get everything shipshape before he went any further. And he spent some money with us at the chandlery, so that was good!’

Moving on

The adventurers flew to the US for Christmas and then back to Kilmore Quay in 2015 to prepare to take Proteus south to France and then west, across the Atlantic - as originally planned, but wiser for their experience in the Celtic Sea.

Noah concludes: ‘People say: “Respect the sea.” And prior to this I would have said: “Yes, I do respect the sea!” But that’s akin to reading all about travel and foreign lands without ever having set foot on a plane. I tell you now: we sailors of Proteus, we respect the sea. I’ve lived near and on water my entire life, but no movies or books or photographs can tell you what it is really about out there.

'And, secondly, we respect the first responders - the men of RNLI lifeboat 16-18 - that came out to make sure we made it into their harbour safely.’

Our volunteers are trained and equipped to attend rescues like this, thanks to generous public support. Help them be there next time. Donate here.