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Sunk without a trace

One moment they were fishing off County Louth’s craggy Clogher Head headland, just half a mile from shore. The next they were struggling to keep their heads above water as their razor fishing boat sank within minutes.

Sunk without a trace

Photo: Thos Caffrey/

With no time to raise the alarm, the lives of two fishermen hung in the balance.

But little did they know, help was on its way.

A good day’s fishing

It was Saturday 23 August. The weather was glorious – clear blue skies and a flat calm sea.

Clogher Head Crew Member Sean Flanagan was razor fishing with his son Donal onboard the Naomh Óisín, a commercial fishing vessel.

Donal, who was home from university for the Summer holidays, always enjoyed getting back out on the open sea and helping his dad with the day’s catch.

They’d been out since the early hours and usually returned around 9pm. But on this day they’d had a bit of trouble with the fishing gear. So at around midday they returned to Port Oriel Harbour and removed some debris from a blocked pipe.

All seemed OK so Sean decided to head back out to continue fishing, but stayed just a few miles from the harbour to make up for lost time.

At one point, they were fishing alongside another fishing trawler – a common occurrence in the thriving fishing community. But as the day went on the two boats drifted apart, each on their own course.

A chance phone call

Later that day back on shore, Deputy Coxswain Tomas Whelahan was at home getting ready to tune in to the football.

It was a big game for the seaside village. Local team Clogherhead Dreadnots were playing Cooley Kickhams for a semi-final place in the Louth Senior Gaelic Championship. A large crowd from Clogherhead had gone to watch the match in Dundalk, which could explain why the events that were about to unfold just half a mile out to sea weren't witnessed from the shore.

At around 5.05pm, Tomas’ mobile phone rang. It was Sean out at sea, calling to talk about the game, which was due to start at 5.30pm.

But something made Sean stop mid-sentence.

‘Tomas,’ he said. ‘There’s a boat out there and it’s sinking. I’m gonna call in a Mayday.’

As soon as he’d hung up from Sean, Tomas called the station’s Lifeboat Operations Manager, Declan Levins, and said:

‘Declan, launch the lifeboat quick. There’s a razor boat sinking.’

Then he raced to the station to get ready to launch.

‘I had a gut feeling the boat wasn’t going to come back’

Onboard the Naomh Óisín, Sean was on the radio to Dublin Coast Guard.

It was Donal who had spotted a puff of smoke in the distance as he was walking on deck. When Sean looked closer through his binoculars, he could see it was coming from the engine of a boat just over a mile away – the razor fishing boat they’d been alongside earlier. What’s more, the boat was listing badly. So badly, Sean knew it wouldn’t recover.

Sean gave as much information as he could to the Coast Guard. He was able to give them a rough position and then told them to stand by while he and Donal made their way as quick as they could to the sinking boat.

‘I had a gut feeling the boat wasn’t going to come back,’ Sean recalls. ‘So we half hauled in the fishing gear, just to get moving. They’re slow enough trawlers but we were going flat out that day.

‘I put my son on top of the wheelhouse to keep an eye on the sinking boat. We had a fix on the headland anyway and a compass bearing so we kept going for it.’

Sunk within minutes

The razor boat disappeared before they got there. And there was no sign of the crew.

‘We kept heading for the position, but all we had was a line,’ Sean continues. ‘And we didn’t know where along the line the boat was, although we had a rough idea.’

Then Donal spotted a bright orange object. A liferaft.

‘We were steaming for the liferaft,’ Sean says. ‘And I was updating the Coast Guard on the way. I could hear what was happening on channel 16 so I knew the lifeboat was on its way.’

When Sean and Donal finally reached the liferaft 15 minutes later, the two fishermen were in the water.

There had been no time to deploy the liferaft, but luckily it automatically deployed as the boat sank.

The elder of the two fishermen was hanging on to it. But the younger fisherman couldn’t quite reach it and was desperately trying to keep his head above the water.

There was air trapped at the bottom of his waders, making his legs extremely buoyant but forcing his head underwater.

‘I was shouting at him to swim and get to the liferaft while I got my boat in a position to pick them up,’ Sean says. ‘He was finding it hard to move because of his waders and I think something from the boat was caught round his leg.

‘All I was thinking was: “Let’s get these two men into the boat as quick as we can.”’

‘Cold water shock is an awful thing’

Between them, Sean and Donal managed to pull the two men out of the water and onboard the Naomh Óisín.

They wrapped them in blankets and Sean assessed their condition.

‘They seemed OK, thank goodness,’ Sean recalls. ‘But cold water shock is an awful thing and you can never be too careful.’

At the same time the Clogher Head lifeboat crew arrived in their all-weather Mersey class lifeboat, Doris Bleasdale. Deputy Coxswain Tomas Whelahan pulled up alongside the Naomh Óisín.

‘We knew by the time we got there that Sean had the two casualties onboard his boat,’ Tomas explains. ‘It was just a matter of assessing the situation and judging the best way to go alongside Sean’s boat.

‘The wreck was on port side so we came along starboard side and we tied up against him. We transferred the two casualties to the lifeboat, wrapped them up in fresh blankets and assessed their condition.

‘The skipper, the older guy, was kind of OK. He was sitting there in the wheelhouse. But the younger guy, who was probably in his 20s, was in shock and slightly hypothermic.

‘We asked him if he’d swallowed much water because he was wearing waders and went underwater a few times. When he said he had, we knew we had to get him evacuated as soon as possible – we weren’t going to take any chances.’

A draughty transfer

The Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116 was soon above them, ready to airlift the two fishermen to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda.

During the rescue, Sean’s fishing gear had gotten tangled in the wreck of the fishing trawler that was now over 3m below at the bottom of the Irish Sea.

‘I kind of knew that was going to happen,’ Sean says. ‘It wasn’t a big deal. We were focussing on getting the men out of the water – that wasn’t a good place to be.

‘Usually when you do transfers from a boat to a helicopter, the boat would be moving forward. But we couldn’t because my gear was caught up in the sunken fishing boat and the lifeboat was tied to me. So there was an incredible downdraft from the helicopter.

‘I had the liferaft aboard my boat at this stage and I had to tie it down with ropes and physically hold it down too so it wouldn’t blow away. It was so windy, it was like a mini hurricane.’

Tomas agrees: ‘The downdraft from the helicopter was severe. The spray coming off the water that day was like little pins hitting your face.

‘We were worried about the amount of saltwater the young guy had swallowed. So I told his skipper: “You have to go with your crewman and make sure you brief the helicopter and the medics on the situation in case anything happens.”'

Once the casualties were safely transferred, the lifeboat crew helped Sean untangle his fishing gear from the wrecked fishing trawler and picked up any floating debris, before returning to shore.

The trawler, which was around 10–12m long, was later marked with an Emergency Wreck Buoy, serving as a stark reminder of what could have happened on that beautiful Summer’s day.

Ready for anything

Thanks to Sean and Donal’s actions that day, the two fishermen survived.

Sean’s lifeboat crew training came into its own and he reacted instinctively to the emergency situation, despite initially being without the support of the lifeboat and his crewmates.

He had to improvise and use whatever means he had onboard his fishing boat.

‘Unfortunately when you’re fishing you’re a bit shorthanded,’ Sean explains. ‘On the lifeboat, crew members have designated roles. One person is responsible for the communications, another for radar, and you have a helm and a coxswain. I just had my son!

‘But Donal stepped up to the mark. He was very good. Probably the best day’s work he’ll ever do in his life!

‘It was all about knowing what to do and doing it in the right sequence. For example, we could have rushed to the vessel and then called in the Mayday. But that’s not the right way. The right thing to do is get the word out first and assess the situation because you don’t know what you’re going to.

‘There’s a lot of rational thinking. We’re trained not to panic in a situation like this. You should never really panic unless the water’s up round your ears. The water wasn’t up round my ears so I was OK!’

Lucky to be alive

With no other boats around, Sean and Donal just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, to save the two fishermen.

‘They were lucky that we didn’t go back to where we were fishing that morning,’ Sean says. ‘They didn’t have time to do anything, it happened that quickly.’

‘They were very, very lucky guys that day,’ Tomas adds. ‘Sean and Donal saved the day. It would’ve been a completely different story if they hadn’t seen the boat sinking.

‘Boats are boats and you can replace them. You can’t replace lives.’

Commercial fishing is one of the most hazardous industries and there are some shocking statistics to prove it.

Thousands of fishermen and women across the Republic of Ireland and UK put their lives on the line to earn a crust and put seafood on our plates.

Our aim is to make them more aware of the dangers they face and ways they can stay safe on the job. See what we’re doing.