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In their own words: Clifden crew rescue shipwrecked sailor

Clifden lifeboat volunteers are a close-knit crew, including a father and son. Here, watch the video then hear the dramatic story direct from the four inshore crew.

When our crew pager went off 

HELM ALAN PRYCE: I knew it would be a rough day at sea. My house is next to the shore and I’d been noting the strong south-east wind that day.

CREW MEMBER IAN SHANAHAN: It was my wife’s birthday. When the pager went off I was just back from a day out with her. 

CREW MEMBER ALVIN BELL: I’d just got back home from work around 5pm. I didn’t even have time for a cup of tea!

CREW MEMBER ANDY BELL (ALVIN'S DAD): I was several miles outside town on my way to a friend’s house. I turned the car around, but I didn’t expect to get to the station in time.

Clifden crew assemble: Alvin, Andy and Alan

Photo: RNLI

Clifden crew assemble (l-r): Alvin, Andy and Alan

We jump on the inshore lifeboat 

ANDY: The Shannon class lifeboat had launched by the time I got there but the inshore Atlantic 85 lifeboat was still sitting at the top of the slipway. I suited up and joined my son Alvin, plus Alan and Ian, on the lifeboat.

ALAN: As helm that day, I was confident we could do the job with the crew we had.

 The Atlantic 85 lifeboat Joyce King

Photo: RNLI

The Atlantic 85 lifeboat Joyce King

We’re on our way 

ALVIN: A 25ft yacht had grounded on Inishark Island, 12 nautical miles away. On the way there it was a very confused sea state. We were rattled a bit! But Alan knows how to handle a boat. 

ANDY: We could see the Shannon class lifeboat about 2 miles ahead of us and could tell by the spray rising from her that it wouldn’t be the smoothest of journeys. Alan the helm, and Alvin on the plotter, did an excellent job of navigating through the islands and we arrived on scene about 5.40pm.

The view from the Shannon: shipwrecked sailor in the centre, watching his yacht being battered on the rocks

Photo: RNLI

The view from the Shannon: shipwrecked sailor in the centre, watching his yacht being battered on the rocks

We reach the shipwreck

ALVIN: There was a yacht on the rocks of the island, getting absolutely battered. Every wave was breaking it up bit by bit.

The Shannon crew spotted the sailor – he’d somehow managed to get ashore. 

ALAN: The wind was picking up, the sea was very confused with a sharp chop and a 2m swell – all-in-all quite difficult conditions. We were told it would be 25 minutes before the Coast Guard helicopter arrived. We needed to get a crew member ashore to assess the casualty and get him off the island.

The Shannon class lifeboat Brianne Aldington, with Coxswain James Mullen in command, provided shelter for the Atlantic 85

Photo: Steve Lowe

The Shannon class lifeboat Brianne Aldington, with Coxswain James Mullen in command, provided shelter for the Atlantic 85  

Our veering down manoeuvre

ANDY: To reach the shore, Alan chose the best spot to veer down – that’s where we anchor the lifeboat to help keep control while we reverse to shore in rough seas. It was about 60m to the east of the sailor. On the second attempt we got a good hold on the anchor. Alan brought the boat nicely back to the shore while the Shannon sat ahead of us, providing shelter from the swell. 

ALAN: Carrying out a veering manoeuvre on a rough day, in an isolated area of an uninhabited offshore island, is definitely something that would carry a degree or risk. The crew did an excellent job and the Shannon provided top cover.

IAN: Alan made light work of it really and, in conjunction with Alvin and Andy, pulled it off with pin-point precision. 

Ian, who had to jump onto the rocks to reach the shipwrecked sailor

Photo: RNLI/Clifden

Ian, who had to jump onto the rocks to reach the shipwrecked sailor  

Getting Crew Member Ian onto the rocks

IAN: I had to get ashore to reach the sailor. Alan took me within 1m of the rock, which was moving between knee height and overhead at times due to the swell. It’s best not to hesitate in these situations. I leaped and landed on all fours. Thankfully the rocks weren’t slippery, but they were fairly sharp with mussels, cutting my hand a little. Once ashore I made my way carefully up the rocks to the casualty.

Assessing the lone sailor

IAN: The sailor had no major injuries. He’d got wet, but he had the presence of mind to change into dry clothes, reducing his chance of becoming hypothermic. He had hit his head a few times and I talked him into getting a full check-up in hospital, just to be sure.

Obviously he was in a bit of shock from his ordeal. I did feel bad that we couldn’t save his yacht. As a sailor myself it is never nice to see a vessel get smashed like that, but there was absolutely nothing that could be done. Fibreglass can be replaced, people cannot.

Our challenges on the Atlantic 85 lifeboat

ALVIN: While Ian was on shore, our two propellers got wrapped up lobster lines. Both engines cut out. I jumped down, freed the ropes, started up and we were gone straight away. 

ANDY: Then, when trying to relocate, preparing to recover the pair from the shore, the anchor stuck fast. After several attempts to free it with Alvin’s help, the decision to cut free was made. The helicopter was on its way by this time, so those ashore had an alternative way off the rocks.

The Coast Guard helicopter crew winch the sailor and Ian to safety

Photo: RNLI

The Coast Guard helicopter crew winch the sailor and Ian to safety

Winching the sailor and Ian to safety

ALAN: We were glad we could assist the sailor and delighted to see him airlifted by the Coast Guard helicopter to safety from the top of the cliff. 

IAN: The helicopter crew dropped me ashore at Cleggan, 10 minutes from Clifden, and I was picked up. They took the sailor to hospital for a thorough check-up.

Facing a gale on the way home

ANDY: The return passage back to the station was into a head-on wind, which at times was reaching force 9, and a 3m swell. 

ALAN: You couldn’t switch off for one second. I remember being physically tired after it. 

IAN: I felt bad for our lads having to head home against the weather in the lifeboat. But at least I got my first lift in the chopper so it wasn’t all bad! 

However, I wasn't looking forward to heading home to my wife whom I abandoned on her birthday. Fortunately, she is very good natured about what I – and her father and brother – do.

Father and son team Andrew and Alvin

Photo: RNLI

Father and son team Andrew and Alvin

Why we think the rescue was a success

ALAN: We all know each other well in Clifden. Both crews performed brilliantly together. The manoeuvrability and draft of the Atlantic 85 mean that it can operate very effectively on our patch, between islands and shallow channels.

ALVIN: We all trust each other on our crew. As helm, Alan had most of the responsibility on his shoulders. He’s one of a kind. He’d never put you in danger. 

ANDY: I was very proud when my son Alvin told me he was joining the crew. Like all the crew here, there is great comfort and security in the knowledge that we work as a unit while afloat. 

Of course, none of it would be possible without the generosity of all our donors. A huge thank you also goes to all the fundraisers everywhere who rattle buckets in the rain so we can continue to be the best at what we do.

IAN: And most important of all are the people we leave with screaming children, cold dinners, cancelled dates and ‘where’s daddy gone now?’ We leave at all hours, heading into what might seem mundane to us crew, but can seem frightening to our partners. We rely entirely on their willingness to take it on the chin, to pick up the pieces and carry on as normal until we return – often too late or too tired to help. 

So a very big thank you to all the husbands, wives, partners, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, neighbours, friends and the rest of you for being part of what we do. 

Right now, RNLI lifesavers are facing the Perfect Storm. More people than ever need our help. But we can't save them all. Not without your support. Will you make a donation and help RNLI volunteers across the UK and Ireland save lives at sea?  

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