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Castletownbere's 12-hour mission to stranded sailor in severe gale

Lifeboat volunteers face an exhausting 12-hour shift when a yachtsman is stranded 50 miles off the coast in appalling weather.

Castletownbere's 12-hour mission to stranded sailor in severe gale

It’s just before 8am and the start to a blustery August weekend in Castletownbere. Coxswain Brian O’Driscoll is about to enjoy breakfast when his pager springs into life.

A lone yachtsman, sailing home from the Azores, is struggling in a heavy swell and rough seas. Dismasted, and with the VHF antenna washed overboard, he resorts to motoring on his last dregs of fuel and triggers the distress signal on his personal location beacon.

Brian knows the location well from his years as a fisherman. Joined by his trusty volunteer crew, he launches Castletownbere’s Severn class lifeboat Annette Hutton into squally conditions.

The search begins

Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 115 is scrambled from Shannon. They go on ahead to confirm the position and reassure the yachtsman that the RNLI crew are on their way.

‘They have a bit of a struggle finding the yacht,’ says Brian, ‘But they eventually spot it drifting 4 miles south-east of its last known position.’ The yacht’s skipper manages to rig his broken radio through a GPS aerial just long enough to contact the helicopter at short range.

At the scene, the lifeboat crew and yachtsman are in the teeth of a severe gale force 9 and dealing with 9m waves. Brian remembers it adding to communication problems: ‘The weather is too bad for us to go alongside. We have to raise the sailor from his cabin using a loudhailer. We can’t hear him through the wind and spray but he confirms our directions with hand signals.’

Given the conditions, it is safer to leave him aboard while the RNLI crew tow the vessel. The sailor is shaken up but appears OK. He is able to tie the tow rope and take himself belowdecks to prepare for the long journey into harbour.

A turn for the worse

With the stricken vessel now in tow, the RNLI crew make 5-6 knots but about 2 hours in the casualty flags them down. ‘We shorten the tow to see if he's OK,’ says Brian. ‘He says he's very cold, maybe hypothermic. Waves are breaking over the deck and flooding his cabin. Everything is saturated. He’s had enough and wants to get off.’

But Brian knows it’s too risky for the all-weather lifeboat to make the transfer. ‘There would be too much damage,’ he says. ‘Crew Member David Fenton volunteers to go across in our inflatable Y boat. Launching that is hairy enough.’

David skilfully manoeuvres alongside the lurching yacht, transfers the casualty, and gets him safely aboard Annette Hutton. The man is taken into the wheelhouse and, after a cup of sweet coffee, he starts to thaw out and feel a lot better.

The long return to harbour

The ordeal is far from over though. ‘We continue with the tow, it takes 9 hours all in all,’ says Brian. ‘There is a fair amount of slamming and when you’ve got people onboard with a lot of time to think they’re gonna get seasick.’

They finally arrive at the station around 8.30pm, more than 12 hours after launching. Castletownbere’s main pier is chock-a-block with vessels sheltering from the storm so they moor the yacht on the other side of the lifeboat pontoon.

Lifeboats Operation Manager Tony O’Sullivan has arranged for a second band of volunteers to get the lifeboat fuelled up and ready for service again, freeing up the weary lifesavers and their casualty to get changed in the boathouse.

The grateful yachtsman thanks everyone and the crew invite him to dinner at a local restaurant. It’s their first square meal for a day, and weeks for the yachtsman. The hospitality doesn’t end there, the volunteers also arrange some accommodation for the sailor. It will be a week until his vessel is seaworthy again.

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.