Dinghy sailor Brian O'Carroll

It was a perfect day for sailing when experienced dinghy sailor Brian O’Carroll and his sister Kate set out on 29 August 2010 off the south coast of County Cork. But suddenly the conditions turned against them, leaving them both at the mercy of the sea. Read Brian’s moving account of what happened that day. 
A portrait shot of Brian O’Carroll who was rescued by Arklow RNLI along with his sister, Kate, when their sailing dinghy capsized

Photo: RNLI / Nigel Millard

Brian O'Carroll who was rescued by the Arklow RNLI after capsizing in a dinghy

‘Perfect sailing conditions and a fine day’

We were making good speed towards Mizen Head and had intended to round it and land at Brittas Bay Beach for lunch.

We were sailing a Laser Pico, the water was relatively calm and the north-westerly wind was reasonably strong and consistent: perfect sailing conditions and a fine day.

‘The change in conditions caught me off guard’

 About 500m from the Head the sea started to become considerably rougher, the wind picked up and switched to a north north-easterly direction.

The change in conditions caught me off guard and the boat capsized. Capsizing is not uncommon in dinghy sailing and righting is normally a straightforward procedure.

We were quickly back onboard but the escalating weather and sea conditions prevented me from regaining control and we capsized again.

This time, my sister ended up a short distance from the boat. I told her to come back. When I climbed back aboard, I noticed that she was now around 6m from the boat. I didn’t think much of it. We often lose water bottles and hats overboard and they are recovered within seconds.

‘I doubted my ability to get back to Kate’

 I wrestled with the boat for a few minutes, trying to beat into the direction of the strengthening wind, tidal current and waves. However, these three combined factors made the task impossible.

Meanwhile the tide and the wind were carrying me and the boat further and further away from Kate. I was beginning to have serious doubts about my ability to get back to her and I was starting to get very worried about the wild conditions that only 10 minutes before had been ideal. This worry and torment affected my ability to concentrate and capsizes became more frequent.

‘The boat was in tatters and no longer sailable’

 About 20–25 minutes and 10–12 capsizes later, I was utterly exhausted and in a state of panic. At times, it took 10 seconds or more to spot Kate in the swell and this added to my terror.

Each time it happened I thought she was gone for good. She was now 200–300m away and the boat was in tatters after the hammering it had taken. It was no longer sailable.

‘I felt I had little chance of making it’

 Eventually, I made the most difficult decision of my life and left the boat. I knew from training and experience never to leave the boat. I had run out of ideas and I was utterly desperate. I jumped in knowing that I was already exhausted and looking at a 250m swim in severe conditions, against tide, wind and wave. In short, I felt I had little chance of making it.

On top of that, I was now at water level and I could rarely see Kate over the swell. I swam, unsure of direction or outcome. My plan was to reach my sister and attempt [to swim] a further 300m to land. I didn’t fancy the odds. 

I thought about my unborn child, my wife and my parents and how I was going to explain to them that their youngest daughter was gone for good (if I was even able to make it myself). I pushed myself beyond all physical and mental boundaries.

‘My spirit soared with a relief and elation that I had never felt in my life’

Strangely enough, I finally started to relax and accept the fate that was starting to appear inevitable. I can only assume that this was the result of some soothing chemical released by the brain when death is knocking loudly at the door.

I was awoken from my now trance-like state by a loud voice. I was unable for several seconds to even register where the voice was coming from and what it was saying. I turned around and saw the large bright orange rescue boat of the Arklow RNLI. My spirit soared with a relief and elation that I had never felt in my life.

When I regained the ability to listen and speak, I confirmed to the crew member that yes, there were definitely only two of us. I directed the lifeboat to my sister and asked them to pick her up first.

‘I will never forget their kindness’

I watched the boat pull up alongside her and looked at the RNLI flag with a mixture of giddiness and great respect. I will never forget it. It was finally over – and not in the manner I had feared.

Survivors Brian O’Carroll and his sister Kate. Kate is holding Brian’s daughter Fay who was born shortly after their rescue.

Photo: RNLI / Nigel Millard

Survivors Brian O’Carroll and his sister Kate. Kate is holding Brian’s daughter Fay who was born shortly after their rescue

I would like to sincerely thank the voluntary crew at the Arklow RNLI Lifeboat Station for dropping everything in their personal life on a Sunday afternoon to save my life and that of my sister. 

I will never forget their kindness and professionalism in our time of dire need. I would also like to point out that without the proper safety equipment, we would almost definitely have drowned, even with the best efforts of the RNLI. Thankfully, we had two good-quality wetsuits and well-fitting buoyancy aids.

Finally, I encourage all who read this to give generously to the RNLI, which depends on donations from the public to maintain a well-equipped and very well-run rescue service.