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The jump: Trawlermen forced to abandon ship in Kinsale

Jonathan Connor was spending his Sunday evening studying. The trainee crew member was at Kinsale Lifeboat Station, working on an RNLI course, when he heard a message on the radio – a 20m trawler had been forced onto rocks and was speaking with the Coast Guard. It was 6pm on 10 April.

The jump: Trawlermen forced to abandon ship in Kinsale

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Jonathan knew the situation was serious. He called Helm Nick Searls, who set off for the station straight away.

Meanwhile, Crew Member Matthew Teehan was shopping for his evening meal when he saw Nick dashing past the supermarket door. Matthew knew something was up: ‘You wouldn’t often see Nicky running.’ He followed Nick down to the station and – just as they got in the door – heard the trawlermen issuing their mayday call.

Third to arrive at the station was Jim Grennan. They launched the lifeboat at 6.10pm - Jonathan had bought them a good 5 minutes.

Onboard the trawler Sean Anthony, things were pretty rough for Portuguese fishermen Angelo, Jose and Ruben. In a force 8-9 gale, they had gone aground on rocks at the entrance to Kinsale Harbour. The tide was in, and a messy swell rolled the vessel around on its rocky perch. The fishermen had their lifejackets on, but there was no way to safety for them just yet.

It took around 5 minutes for the lifeboat crew to get to the scene. Nick says: ‘We were flat out, but using our local knowledge to get there quickly and safely. It was a mayday so we had people in trouble. From knowing where the boat was, we knew it was going to be a metre up on the rocks and we wouldn’t be able to get in that close. We knew we’d have to veer down and pick them up out of the water.’

Veering down involves dropping anchor at the bow and then reversing carefully. It keeps the lifeboat under control in difficult or constrained situations – just like this one. There was no way to get the lifeboat close enough to the trawler for the fishermen to step aboard. They would have to jump into the water – in 3-4m waves – and trust that the RNLI volunteers would scoop them out.

Hours of training meant Nick’s experienced crew knew just what to do. ‘There was no conversation. We train an awful lot together, so there was no big discussion. We did it quick and we were gone,’ he recalls. Using the time honoured techniques of shouting and hand signals, they urged the fishermen to jump.

The first two fishermen were keen to get off the trawler. They leaped in and swam to the lifeboat, where they were hauled aboard by all three crew members. The third was more hesitant. Matthew says: ‘The wave came up the beam of the trawler and he was standing at the gunwale. It nearly pulled him into the water.’ Once in, though, he swam strongly to the lifeboat. Matthew knew there was no time to waste: ‘After we got the three lads onboard and got over the rocks, we cut the anchor to get out of the danger zone as fast as possible.’

They returned to station, where the rescued fishermen were offered hot showers, coffee and woolly bears (the thermal all-in-ones the lifeboat crew wear under their drysuits). Their possessions were still onboard Sean Anthony.

Back at the harbour entrance, a crowd of onlookers had gathered on a cliff overlooking the scene, and it still looked like the trawler could come loose at any moment. Nick, Matthew and Jim went straight back out and stood by for around an hour until the Coast Guard arrived.

When they got back to the station, at around 8pm, the town of Kinsale had rallied round. A local shoe shop had sent shoes for the fishermen. And a local hotel offered them a place to stay – as well as a meal for rescuees and crew to share.

Matthew says: ‘They dropped down some pizzas and a mountain of chips, and chicken. There was loads of food here.’ Despite the abandoned supermarket shopping, there was still a hot dinner for the crew - and the rescued fishermen.

This rescue features in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.