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.
Rosslare Harbour RNLI's Severn class lifeboat Donald and Barbara Broadhead in heavy seas

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Rosslare Harbour RNLI's Severn class lifeboat Donald and Barbara Broadhead in heavy seas

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.

Rosslare Harbour RNLI Coxswain Eamonn O'Rourke

Photo: RNLI/Rob Westcott

Eamonn O'Rourke, Coxswain, Rosslare Harbour RNLI

‘The storm was coming on so fast,’ Eamonn 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.’

Rosslare Harbour RNLI Mechanic Michael Nicholas

Photo: RNLI/Rob Westcott

Michael Nicholas, Mechanic, Rosslare Harbour RNLI

Three yachtsmen are attempting to move a 10m yacht from Rosslare Harbour to a more protected mooring further up the coast. The sailors set sail from Southampton 3 days earlier to deliver the yacht to Malahide in north Dublin.  

On the open sea, they're at the mercy of the wind and 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.

Rosslare Harbour lifeboat crew onboard their moored Severn class all-weather lifeboat Donald and Barbara Broadhead

Photo: Larry Dunne

The lifeboat crew (left to right): Pairic Quirke, Micheál Ferguson, Richie Parish, Keith Morris, Eamonn O'Rourke, Art Sheil, Michael Nicholas and Stephen Breen

‘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.’

The drogue

Illustration to show how a drogue can help stabilise a vessel while being towedA drogue - a small underwater parachute - can help stabilise a vessel sailing downwind.

The drogue attaches to the stern and acts as an extra rudder to keep the boat going in a straight line. It also helps to slow the boat down.

A heaving line, as the name suggests, is a lightweight rope used to pull something heavy such as a tow rope or drogue from one vessel to another. It is thrown or fired onto the deck of the casualty boat. A straightforward procedure in calm weather, this is much more difficult in heavy seas.

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.’

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.

Satellite view of Storm Ophelia

Photo: Shutterstock

Satellite view of Storm Ophelia

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 even 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.’

The yacht's skipper Mark Adrian Corbett and his crew will forever be indebted to the Rosslare Harbour lifeboat volunteers. ‘If they hadn’t risked their own lives and launched in the hurricane to rescue us, voluntarily, we wouldn’t be here today. I’m genuinely forever grateful to them.’

Sailor and Poole RNLI shore crew volunteer Mark Adrian Corbett
Sailor and Poole RNLI shore crew volunteer Mark Adrian Corbett

‘Essentially we were in a sailor’s worst nightmare’

Mark Adrian explains how they got caught out that day. ‘We’d actually made landfall and were ahead of the storm. That’s why what happened next was so frustrating. 

‘A lot of people might not realise that we didn’t go sailing in a storm. We were manoeuvring the boat a few miles north of Rosslare Harbour for safer anchorage. We left Rosslare Harbour in 10 knots of wind and flat seas. By the time we reached our destination, the wind had increased to around 60 knots and the surf conditions were so big that I couldn’t get into the harbour. We would’ve broached had we gone in there.

‘Essentially we were in a sailor’s worst nightmare - a lee shore. That’s when the wind is blowing towards the shore. The surf is heading that way and all the pressure is heading that way. You’re being pushed that way and you can’t sail or motor out of it. It’s an environment I’ve never been in before. We were so overpowered by the wind. The engine was never going to survive. That’s when I called in the Mayday.’

‘You have to manage the human situation as well as the boat situation’

‘I calmly explained what was happening to the crew and told them to prepare for an emergency,’ Mark Adrian continues. ‘I didn’t want to alarm or upset them. You have to manage the human situation as well as the boat situation and the most important thing are the humans. 

‘I’d already made a decision that had put them in harm’s way. So I was thinking: “If the boat ends up on the rocks, as long as these guys aren’t onboard, then it’s not a problem. As long as I can get these guys home.”

‘We were relieved when we saw the lifeboat. But when I saw the size of the lifeboat in comparison to the size of the waves the lifeboat was in, I realised that I’d got these guys into trouble as well.’

‘It was like sailing into a 100mph sandstorm’

‘We spent some time trying to establish a tow and were then towed back into the weather,’ Mark Adrian explains. ‘When you sail into a hurricane, it’s like sailing into a 100mph sandstorm. It’s like an industrial pressure washer. Everything on the yacht was just getting destroyed and the boat was getting smaller and smaller.’

Still from Rosslare Harbour RNLI rescue footage showing the yacht being towed
Still from Rosslare Harbour RNLI rescue footage showing the yacht being towed

‘At one point I remember looking at the lifeboat and seeing it completely vanish,’ Mark Adrian continues. ‘The wave in front of us was so big, the bow disappeared in the wave. We were one side of the wave and the lifeboat was the other. Then we would pop up and the lifeboat would pop down and I’d see the lifeboat right on her stern, climbing up another wave. It was blowing 100 knots on the nose. So that was a testing time. 

‘We all stayed on deck together. The risk of taking on water and suddenly swamping the boat was quite high. Even though the lifeboat was towing us into the waves, we still had crashing waves over the top of us. 

‘Even after the rescue we were still in conditions that weren’t safe. We tied the boat up back in Rosslare Harbour with as many lines as we could and covered it in fenders. We couldn’t stay on the boat that night as it was full of water. We tried to get as much of it out as we could. None of us could walk down the quay, it was that windy. All the debris from the car park was being blown into the sea and the boat was being hammered by stones.

‘The moment I felt safe and actually relaxed was when I finally got to take my drysuit off and sit down in the lifeboat station with a cup of tea. I just took a deep breath.’

Paying it forward

‘There isn’t enough you can do for people who save your life,’ Mark Adrian says. But one great thing Mark Adrian is now doing is volunteering for the RNLI.

‘I do believe in paying it forward. I grew up in Aberystwyth and was a volunteer at my local lifeboat station before I left to work abroad. Now I live In Poole and many of my friends either volunteer or work for the RNLI. So they and the Rosslare Harbour lifeboat crew have inspired me to volunteer again.’

Mark Adrian volunteers as shore crew with Poole Lifeboat Station. ‘It’s great!’ he says. ‘Poole lifeboat crew is just the quirkiest family! We’ve got doctors, lifeboat trainers, people from RNLI head office, recruiters, paramedics, and more.

‘No matter how much time you can give, it all helps. And you don’t have to know anything about boats. If just one person volunteers after hearing about my story, then it’s a story worth telling.’

You can save lives too

Behind each rescue is a community of volunteers - in all kinds of roles. From the shore crew who help launch the lifeboat to the fundraisers who raise awareness and vital funds.

If you feel inspired by Mark Adrian and the Rosslare Harbour lifeboat volunteers who rescued him and his crew, take a look at the different ways you can volunteer in our volunteering pages.

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