THE festive season is like any other time for the volunteers of the RNLI, who are on call 24/7, braving rough seas and winter weather to save lives.
“Our lifeboat crew are what is best in the RNLI, says Brian O’Driscoll, Area Lifesaving Manager. “They give their time and their passion to the RNLI and in return they get the training, skills and equipment to be able to help those in trouble at sea.”
Last week, while people around the country were tucking into Christmas dinner and celebrating New Year, 1,500 RNLI volunteers were wearing a pager on call.
“These men and women give up their time to train and launch lifeboats in all weathers and to all types of situations. Many people don’t realise that the RNLI is a charity and we depend on the generosity of the public,” says Brian.
“We are appealing to the public to help our fundraising efforts this year, supporting the RNLI’s Perfect Storm appeal, helping to ensure the charity’s brave volunteers can continue.”
The dedicated volunteers often leave the family dinner table, their place of work or even the classroom, to answer the call.
“I’ve often left clients mid-treatment in the salon when my pager goes off,” says Aoife Dinan, owner of Rejuvenate Beauty in Crosshaven.
“I leave work immediately to take part in a rescue operation.”
Why did she join the RNLI as a volunteer?
“My partner, Jamie, is a fisherman,” says Aoife, 36. “In 2011 he had an accident at sea, Fortunately Jamie was saved, but his friend, Gerry, was lost at sea.
“When the search for Gerry was officially called off, the lifeboat continued to go out on exercise, drawing up a rota for four weeks until Gerry’s body was recovered and they could return his body to his loved ones.
“I was really impressed by the dedication of the RNLI and how good the organisation was to Jamie after the tragedy. So I signed up as a volunteer and I love being involved with such an amazing organisation. We are just normal, everyday people”
But they’re not.
On average, 133 lives are lost at sea in Ireland each year. The RNLI volunteers who work on a 24-hour basis doing essential, difficult and sometimes dangerous operations, strive to prevent such tragedies. One such potential tragedy was averted when the Crosshaven lifeboat came to Denis Cronin’s rescue.
“When I was surfing out on the harbour, having a great time, I didn’t realise conditions had changed,” recalls Denis.
“It got darker and as my mates headed inland, I paddled further to reach another beach near Myrtleville.
“It was getting rough and windy. Somebody in the village must have raised the alarm and the lifeboat arrived. I felt an enormous sense of relief when the crew arrived to give me a spin back to shore. I had cramps in my legs and suffered bad fatigue. I’ve lived on the water and near the water all my life, so I signed up as an RNLI volunteer after being rescued. Now I take part in sea rescues as a crew member. It is a really worthwhile thing to do.”
Best friends Molly Murphy and Caomihe Foster love that they get off lessons when they get a call-out. The fifth year students are both RNLI volunteers.
“All our friends in school are envious when we get a call-out,” says Molly, whose family have connections to Crosshaven RNLI.
“We leave the classroom and head to the lifeboat station.”
Do they get homework off?
Kieran Cotter, an RLNI volunteer for 43 years and coxswain with the Baltimore life-boat, doesn’t lose any sleep over going out to sea.
“My father was a crew member before me,” says Kieran, who grew up in Cape Clear, and who runs a convenience store in Baltimore.
“I was on leave from the Merchant Navy in 1975, and I walked down to the lifeboat station and joined up. In Cape Clear, a traditional fishing village, the community always expected tragedies at sea. But it was always and ever devastating and traumatic for the families affected.”
Kieran, who was involved in rescuing 16 crew members from the yacht, the Rambler, that capsized when its 140ft mast cracked and fell in the water during the Rolex Fastnet Race in 1979, said: “You’d always be apprehensive (of the sea). “I don’t have sleepless nights about going out to sea. It doesn’t affect me. I get on with living. It’s any other job, like the man next door in the pub, or the man down the street in the B&B. I enjoyed being a volunteer with the RNLI all my life. It is part of my life.”
Dealing with next of kin can be difficult when loss of life at sea occurs. “It is always someone’s son, daughter, someone’s wife or husband who is left behind,” says Kieran. “The situation can be hard when you recover a body.”
RNLI crew members have to be ready for all eventualities all year round, no matter what.
The courageous efforts of the life-boat crew don’t always have the desired results.
“All the crew from Castletownbere, aboard the St Gervase were lost in 2000,” says Kieran.
“Of the five aboard the trawler, the Tit Bonhomme, one survived.
Good fortune, as well as dedication from the volunteers, plays a part in saving lives at sea.
“Sea rescues can be dramatic,” says Kieran. “When all survive, it is a great piece of good fortune.”
Generations of east Cork families have been involved in the Ballycotton life-oat crew over the years. Colum Sliney handed back his pager last year after 53 years service with the service.
“My grandfather, grand-uncle and father were all lifeboat crew members, saving 162 lives at sea,” says Colum.
Alan Cott, of Ballycotton, knows the sorrow and devastation a loss of life can have on family and communities. He lost his brother, Glynn, in a trawler tragedy off the south- east coast. There were three men on board the Maggie B that sank six miles off Hook Head on March 29, 2006. “One survivor was found on an up-turned life raft,” says Alan.
He joined the RNLI five years ago, realising the awful aftermath a tragedy at sea can wreak.
“I wanted to join because I felt if I could provide any help to prevent something like this happening, it would be worth it. Even if I couldn’t help, I might be able to bring a loved one home.”
Alan, whose grandfather was in the Merchant Navy, and whose father was a fisherman, added: “I don’t want other families to feel the same way my family and I felt when we lost Glynn.”
“I found in the RNLI, that this organisation does make a difference. I have seen the professionalism of the volunteers and the kind-heartedness of people. It’s amazing.”
Sheila O’Driscoll has championed the RNLI all her life. The Castletownbere woman retired after 50 years of dedicated service, campaigning for a lifeboat to be based at the village and actively fundraising for the RNLI.
“I can look out the window and see the lifeboat anchored alongside the boathouse,” she says proudly.
How did Sheila drive her successful campaigns?
“I roped in a lot of people,” she says. “Following the Seaflower tragedy in 1968, myself and a few other locals got together to try and do something to bring a lifeboat to Castletownbere. We held coffee mornings, card drives, dinner-dances, fashion shows and road-bowling events.”
Sheila added: “I turned out for flag days, regatta days... I made tea and sandwiches for the volunteers.
“We all got stuck in and we had a bit of fun too into the bargain!
“We have a great crew and group of people who are involved in the lifeboat here in Castletownbere now.”
See RNLI.org/The PerfectStorm
The RNLI, with 237 stations and 444 life-boats, is a charity in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, principally funded by legacies and donations. Most of the crew are unpaid volunteers.