Mayday at the harbour's mouth
It’s the end of a blustery October day in Castletownbere. Coxswain Dean Hegarty pops across the road to get something for dinner but the sound of his pager sends him running back to the station.
It’s a mayday – the most urgent of all calls for help. Six fishermen are adrift in their 25m fishing boat after it suffered a fouled propeller and lost power. Now at the mercy of the south-westerly 8–9 gale-force winds and a 4-5m swell, they are being pushed towards the rocky shore at the entrance to the harbour.
‘The way the weather was, we just had to go,’ recalls Dean. ‘There were five of us – the minimum number of all-weather lifeboat crew – but we had to go. We were focussed on getting launched and getting out there.’
A tumultuous sea
The crew launched their Severn class lifeboat Annette Hutton at 7.30pm and headed for the harbour entrance.
‘It’s only about 1½–2 miles to the harbour’s mouth but the conditions at that particular spot were very poor. The way the tide was going out and the wind was coming in, it churned it all up like an explosion.’
All sorts of scenarios raced through Dean’s mind as he wondered what they would be faced with. How close is the fishing boat to the rocks? Will the fishermen have abandoned ship? Are they in the water?
The lifeboat crew reached the fishing boat about 3 minutes after launching. By this time, the boat and her six crew were close to Piper Rocks and just 20m from shore.
‘We had the tow rope ready to pass,’ explains Dean. ‘We got as close as we could to them and threw the tow rope across on the first go.’
It took about an hour to tow the fishing boat and her crew through the churning harbour’s mouth and back to the safety of the pier.
‘We were heading into the weather,’ Dean continues. ‘There was a massive swell and the fishing boat was up and down. We kept the lifeboat in gear, just enough to pull her. She was a big boat.’
Due to the deteriorating weather conditions, two local tug boats helped the lifeboat crew to secure the fishing boat alongside the pier.
‘The tug boats were a big help,’ says Dean. ‘They stood by inside the harbour just in case anything went wrong with either one of the boats.
‘The fishermen were so thankful. They were lucky. They did the right thing putting out a mayday straight away, especially with the weather conditions and where they were.’
A close-knit community
Dean praises Castletownbere’s community spirit that sees people always looking out for one another.
‘We have a very tight community here. Everybody knows everybody. We rely on the support of the community big time. And the fishermen support the RNLI a lot because they rely on us at times.’
This was Dean’s second shout as coxswain at Castletownbere after being a volunteer crew member for 5 years.
‘There was a lot of pressure being coxswain, but the crew were excellent. They had the tow rope out and everything sorted by the time we got out there.
Lifeboat Operations Manager Paul Stevens used to teach Dean at primary school. Speaking after the rescue, Paul says: ‘Time was of the essence this evening and I would like to commend our volunteer crew for the fast response that had them on scene and providing help within 10 minutes of the mayday. Given the weather conditions and how close the fishing boat was drifting to the shore at this point, the lifeboat’s timely arrival avoided a potential tragedy.’
Commercial fishing is a hazardous business and we’re working with fishermen across Ireland and the UK to help them understand the risks and improve their safety.
Simple and affordable solutions such as rope tyres, rope ladders and haul-out rigs could help save lives in man overboard situations.
You’re four times more likely to survive in the sea if wearing a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD). If correctly fitted and maintained, it will help you to float even if you’re unconscious, buying precious time until help arrives.
Unstable vessels are a leading cause of death among commercial fishermen. Simple and regular boat checks can significantly reduce the risks.
To find out more about commercial fishing safety and how our work is already saving lives, visit RNLI.org/stability.