Storm drama in the Irish Sea

As a coastal community braces itself for Storm Ophelia, three sailors and eight lifeboat crew get into a race against time.
Storm drama in the Irish Sea

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Even before he’s through the station door, Mechanic Michael Nicholas senses trouble. The passenger ferries are tied up in the adjacent ferry port, the loading bays are empty and the mercury in the station’s Fitzroy barometer has plummeted.

Leisure-boat owners are down on the lagoon putting extra ropes on their vessels and battening down the hatches. Eamonn O’Rourke, Lifeboat Coxswain, is among them. ‘The storm was coming on so fast,’ he says. ‘In just a couple of hours, the wind speed had increased by around 40mph. I’d never seen anything like it.’

It’s 8am, the start of the day shift at Rosslare Harbour Lifeboat Station. ‘I had some routine maintenance to do on the lifeboat,’ recalls Michael. ‘But because of the weather I planned to lock up and be off the lifeboat pontoon by mid-morning.’

Three yachtsmen are attempting to sail from Southampton to Malahide, in north Dublin, to deliver a 10m yacht. On the open sea they’re at the mercy of the wind. The skipper is fighting a desperate battle against the elements to reach land.

As the yacht sweeps past the sandbanks that guard the entrance to Wexford Harbour, a new danger looms. The wind, now building to storm force, is driving them towards Rusk Bank – an area of shallow water and breaking seas to the north. They need help, and fast.

‘An uncomfortable ride’

Minutes after the mayday call, the Severn class all-weather lifeboat Donald and Barbara Broadhead had slipped its moorings and was powering out of the harbour. Even for a lifeboat crew with decades of seafaring experience among them, the ferocity of the wind took them by surprise.

‘We had 50–55mph winds going around the end of the pier,’ says Michael. ‘I kept watching the gauges. From the time we left to the time we got back, the wind speed kept on climbing. I have never, ever seen that before.’

‘We knew we were in for an uncomfortable ride,’ says Eamonn. ‘The swell just got bigger and bigger. And the further we went out, the higher and stronger it became.’

A tricky manoeuvre

The two vessels were in radio contact and the casualties sounded tired. In the space of 30 minutes, the winds had pushed them 7 miles up the coast. The swell had built to a towering 8m, higher even than the lifeboat. Keeping a safe distance, Eamonn steered Donald and Barbara Broadhead carefully around the yacht to assess the situation.

‘Taking the crew off was a last resort,’ explains Eamonn. ‘I’d have had to put a man onboard, but we couldn’t get close enough. I had to consider the safety of my crew.’

Getting a line to the yacht to rig up a tow wouldn’t be easy. ‘The yacht was out of control,’ recalls Eamonn. ‘It was moving very erratically. At one stage, the skipper reported sailing 17 knots down a wave, and a moment later falling back to 2 knots. We decided to try to stabilise it using a drogue. But first we had to get the drogue onboard.’

In deteriorating conditions, Eamonn manoeuvred the lifeboat skilfully into position. ‘The wind made it extremely difficult. The fear was that if we tried to go alongside we’d fall down on top of them or they’d fall down on us.’ With the lifeboat slightly upwind of the yacht, the crew managed to get the drogue’s heaving line across, on the second attempt.

The drogue made a huge difference, enabling Eamonn to get the lifeboat close enough for both crews to set up the tow. But they now faced another problem.

‘We were still heading in the wrong direction,’ he explains. ‘We could go on up to Arklow or we could turn the yacht around, which would make the tow that much shorter. The fear was that if we carried on, and the tow came apart on the sandbanks, we’d never recover. The yacht would capsize and the lads would be in the water. We decided to turn, but there was no let-up in the waves so we couldn’t choose our moment. We just had to go for it.’

Michael explains: ‘Because it was on the end of a rope, the yacht had no choice but to follow us. The skipper couldn’t decide which wave to dodge. If he’d gone broadside to the waves, he could have rolled over.’

Homeward bound

As the two boats started back they weren’t yet out of danger. They were now sailing straight into the hurricane-force wind. ‘The tow rope was attached to two small cleats on the yacht,’ says Eamonn. ‘The fear was that with seas so big, one or both of the cleats would give way. I’m absolutely amazed they held.’ Pairic Quirke was on the lifeboat crew that day. ‘The waves came at us from all angles,’ he recalls. ‘The main sea was from the south, but breaking seas were coming in from the east as well.’

As the boats inched their way towards Rosslare Harbour, businesses all over Wexford were closing early and sending their employees home. The lifeboat crew had been out for nearly 4 hours, the yacht far longer. Coming around the harbour wall, they had one last hurdle to negotiate. ‘You’d imagine a bit of shelter,’ recalls Pairic, ‘but it was pretty wild. The spray was coming off the water like steam.’

A large gathering was at the quayside when the lifeboat crew and the yachtsmen finally made it ashore. ‘The yacht’s crew felt like kissing the ground,’ says Eamonn. ‘The boat was in a bit of a mess. There was water everywhere. They were wading around in it. They’d endured a horrendous few hours at sea. If we’d got to them an hour later it would have been a very different story.

‘When we go out on a rescue, it’s the people left ashore who do the worrying for us. It really hit home. In 32 years on the lifeboat, this was the first time I witnessed the sigh of relief from my wife and kids when I got back.’

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