Cork lifeboat crewman steps down after almost half a century volunteering

After almost half a century volunteering with the RNLI, Kieran Cotter has stood down. He tells CHRIS DUNNE about the highs and lows of his career and what he is planning next
Cork lifeboat crewman steps down after almost half a century volunteering

Baltimore RNLI Coxswain Kieran Cotter on his last exercise before stepping down on December 30 after 45 years of service. Picture RNLI/Emma Lupton.

AFTER volunteering for 45 years as a Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) volunteer, striving to save lives at sea, Kieran Cotter has only one regret after retiring as Coxswain of the Baltimore crew — not being able to have a farewell pint with his colleagues.

“Saving so many lives is hugely rewarding,” says Kieran, who retired on December 30, 2020.

“I was with the RNLI for 45 years and 64 days,” adds Kieran, who runs a convenience store in Baltimore.

“I joined when I was 17 in January, 1975. I was on leave from the Merchant Navy and I walked down to the lifeboat station and I joined up.”

His retirement is the end of an era and the end of half a lifetime for Kieran answering the call and saving lives.

“There is a time for everything,” says Kieran. “Everything comes to an end. It is sad. Looking back, all those years seemed to go by in a blink of an eye. I enjoyed them all.”

Kieran’s heart was always immersed in the ocean.

“I loved serving the community and working with my colleagues on the lifeboat. I have great memories.”

The precarious nature of his job evoked sad memories too.

“There are also some sad memories unfortunately, which you never forget.”

Kieran was loathe to leave his crew, missing the bonhomie, the camaraderie and the collective commitment that made up a heroic team of people.

“I should have retired in May but pushed out my retirement until December, hoping Covid-19 restrictions might be lessened.

“My only regret was that I couldn’t have a pint with my colleagues to toast all those years of service!”

TEAM WORK: Kieran Cotter, left, with fellow crew members of the Baltimore lifeboat during the RNLI 175th anniversary celebrations in 1999.
TEAM WORK: Kieran Cotter, left, with fellow crew members of the Baltimore lifeboat during the RNLI 175th anniversary celebrations in 1999.

The sea-faring genes ran deep in the Cotter clan.

“My father was a crew member before me,” says Kieran, who grew up in Cape Clear.

“He joined the RNLI, being an experienced fisherman, an experienced boatman and a sailor.

“When we came to Baltimore, we lived only 100 yards from the lifeboat station. It seemed a natural thing to do to become part of it in the small rural village.”

The Cotters were familiar with the unpredictable moods of the sea, that could appear calm before the perfect storm erupted.

“In Cape Clear, a traditional fishing village, the community always expected the tragedies at sea,” says Kieran.

“But it was always and ever devastating and traumatic for the families affected.”

He recalls some very sad tragedies that we all remember.

“The St Gervais fishing vessel sank off the coast of Mizen Head in 2000. Sadly, four people lost their lives, two of whom were never recovered.

“We received a call that a distress signal had gone off near Kinsale,” recalls Kieran.

“The boat had left Castletownbere at midnight and we got a call a couple of hours later so I knew the location of the signal was impossible.

“I looked at the charts and saw that there could have been three major obstacles in the way of the boat, Sheep’s Head, Mizen head and the Fastnet. So we went straight out the line from here in Baltimore and worked backwards.”

Kieran’s heart sank, realising the efforts of the dedicated RNLI crew were to prove futile.

“As soon as we came round the Mizen that morning, I knew the boat had gone down.”

Kieran was involved in saving hundreds of lives at sea, yet even with the mighty courageous efforts against some massive odds, the desired results were not always yielded.

“The Tit Bonhomme tragedy claimed five lives in 2012. In June 30, 2015, three people lost their lives at the Beacon in Baltimore after they were washed off the rocks.”

Kieran was always elated and jubilant when sea rescues involving the mammoth efforts of the RNLI proved successful.

“The rescues we carried out provide great memories,” says Kieran.

SAFE: Charlie Haughey leaving Baltimore lifeboat after he was rescued off Mizen Head in 1985.
SAFE: Charlie Haughey leaving Baltimore lifeboat after he was rescued off Mizen Head in 1985.

“The rescue of the 16 crew members on the Rambler during the Fastnet Yacht Race in 2011 and the rescue of Charlie Haughey in 1985 stand out in my mind.

“Mr Haughey and company were extremely lucky that night.

“I remember I was just back from a wedding when his boat ran into navigational problems,” recalls Kieran. “I was in bed when I got the call.”

Sea rescues can be dramatic.

“Yes,” says Kieran. “When all survive, it is a great piece of good fortune.”

“The Haughey rescue mission was a huge event in Ireland at the time.

“We collected him and four others. I didn’t recognise him at first!”

Was Kieran affected by the wrath of the unforgiving sea that claimed so many lives in its wake?

“You’d always be apprehensive,” he admits.

But he never lost any qualms about answering the call, day or night.

“I didn’t have sleepless nights about going out to sea in the lifeboat. It didn’t affect me. I got on with living like 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 was a huge part of my life.”

But Kieran Cotter isn’t your average man next door.

During his 45 years of service, he received many awards for his roles in numerous courageous rescues. He was awarded the Bronze Medal for gallantry and the Maud Smith award in 1991 after the rescue of the Japonica and her crew of 15.

The Baltimore lifeboat crew was recognised by the Swiss Embassy in 2008 and the United States Congress in 1989.

The lifeboat service requires unwavering dedication, as crew members are on call 24/7, every day and every night of the year.

“Yes, the organisation is known for its enduring commitment and dedication, saving lives at sea,” says Kieran.

“The RNLI provides an invaluable service in protecting the community. With today’s modern technology and huge investment in the boats, as well as the constant training we receive, carrying out operations is much safer today.

“And the life-boats are built for solid sea worthiness and facing storms in bad weather.”

Apart from the elements that can change mood in a heartbeat, what else challenges the crew of the lifeboat?

“Dealing with next of kin can be difficult when loss of life at sea occurs,” says Kieran.

“It is always someone’s son, daughter, someone’s wife or husband who is left behind. The situation can be hard when you recover a body.”

And when you don’t recover a body?

“Then that is even harder to cope with,” says Kieran.

With so many years of volunteering with the RNLI under his belt, he says when people go out to sea, they can take precautions to stay safe.

“Most people who go out on the water are unaware that the sea is a dangerous place,” says Kieran.

“And in our affluent society you see people buying boats in the summer time for leisure who have very little knowledge about them. That is so wrong.

“People must be capable and knowledgeable to handle all eventualities at sea. It’s different in coastal villages where kids grow up beside the sea because they grew up fishing or sailing and they become familiar with the sea.”

The sea can be inviting.

“You see kids jumping in to rivers and lakes in the summer. That is dangerous. Even the shock of the temperature in water can cause drowning.”

Kieran, who enjoyed such a rewarding career spanning more than four decades, says volunteering with the RNLI is a fantastic thing to do for any young person.

“The external training in Poole in Dorset, England, and the lifeboat training sessions offer life skills like First Aid, which is invaluable,” says Kieran.

“Making new friends and being part of a team going through life is so positive.”

What is Kieran’s life going to be like now he’s not on call 24/7?

“I’m leaving behind a great crew,” says Kieran.

“We are all so grateful for the continuing support of the community.”

Kieran is still a big part of the Baltimore community.

“I’ll keep the shop going for another while. I’ll see how that goes,” he says. “I’d like to do a bit more sailing.”

And he’ll have that pint — eventually.

Kieran laughs.

“When I decided to stay on for another six months, I said; I’ll surely have that pint now. But still no pint six months later!”

But the pint will go down well in his local when the day comes.

“My daughter says we’ll have one right knees-up of a celebration later this summer.”

And he’ll drink to that.

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