IT was a casual conversation that brought Sean O’Farrell into a role with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).
It proved a fortuitous chat, as it led to a career that has spanned more than 30 years, and allowed him to pursue a role that has been as rewarding as he could have possibly hoped for.
Sean, coxswain of Courtmacsherry RNLI, got an award for 30 years service last year, and will retire just after the 200th anniversary of the RNLI in 2024.
A native of Bandon, he began his career in the Phoenix Park in the Ordnance Survey offices, specialising in photogrammetry - the art and science of extracting 3D information from photographs.
He casually mentioned to the then coxswain at RNLI Courtmacsherry, Diarmuid O’Mahony, what he did for a living and Diarmuid said a map reader would make a wonderful navigator for the lifeboat station.
And so it began. The draw of the sea was too tempting for Sean, as someone with a passion for sea angling and all things nautical, so he handed in his notice in Dublin and came back to West Cork in 1989 to begin his second career.
Sean tells me that the training is second to none. “Everyone is so well trained,” he says, “and you know that the lifeboat can handle all weathers so you can concentrate 100% on doing your job when you’re on a call-out.”
Among other locations, Sean has worked from Dunmore East, Castletownbere, Fishguard, and the Aran Islands as well as mentoring other members of staff all over the county.
The care and attention to the training and the welfare of the crew is outstanding at every station. Sean says that no matter what type of rescue you are attending, the relevant training kicks in and everyone works like a well-oiled machine to get the job done - be that rescuing people in difficulty, or guiding boats back to harbour.
Of course, there are parts of the job that are difficult, especially the recovery of bodies, but again, the training kicks in and this process is done with care and dignity.
Asked about moments that will always stay with him, Sean recalls the tall ship Astrid hitting rocks off the Sovereign islands en route to Kinsale and the rescue that followed.
All 30 Astrid crew members were brought safely to shore and Sean says watching the crews from various rescue services working together to bring everyone home was hugely impressive and a source of great pride to all involved.
He also recalls the sinking of the Tit Bonhomme a decade ago. She went down in Glandore harbour on January 15, 2012, with the loss of five souls. Being unable to save them, Sean says, is a heartache that stays with him and all members of the rescue services. The first RNLI station was established in Arklow, Co Wicklow, almost 200 years ago, in 1826, when Ireland was still a part of Britain.
After the foundation of the state, the tradition of saving lives at sea under the RNLI banner continued with a total of 46 now dotted around our island. In Cork, we boast eight stations, at Kinsale, Crosshaven, Youghal, Union Hall, Courtmacsherry, Ballycotton, Baltimore and Castletownbere, with each boat being most suitable to the areas they work in. For example, the biggest and heaviest at 42 tons is the Severn class in Castletownbere, but all boats will come to the assistance of another when needed.
In Courtmacsherry, their lifeboat is a Trent class named the Frederick Storey Cockburn after the gentleman that donated the funds for her purchase. She will soon be replaced with a Shannon class lifeboat ,which will be moored on the jetty near the station.
The lifeboat stations couldn’t exist without donations, as it is the only funding they receive. The vast majority of donations are gifts and legacies left in people’s wills, but of course every penny counts as every call-out is responded to and costs can amount to €3,500 when training, fuel, equipment, etc, are taken into account.
As for the future of the RNLI in West Cork? It is in very safe hands with coxwains like Sean at the helm, not only an active member of the crew but also as a lifeboat training assessor. In Courtmacsherry alone, there are 30 people waiting to volunteer with even six mechanics available at any given time.
There is huge camaraderie between stations as ‘saving lives at sea’ is their motto and the family feeling among all volunteers keeps them bonded and supportive of one another.
And of course, for those of us that are from fishing towns and coastal areas, the love of the lifeboats runs through generations, as many have a story to tell of friends and family owing their lives to this band of brothers and sisters.
As for Sean’s future with the institution, he’s looking forward to the arrival of their new boat next January or February and the training that will follow, and the celebrations in March, 2024, to mark 200 years of the RNLI.
After that, he says he will be taking it easy, maybe rescuing a dog or two and enjoying his life after a much loved career.
He finishes chatting with me by reminding everyone to ring 112 or 999 when in difficulty. Don’t wait to make the call. And if you’re getting a boat, get some training, learn about your environment and how to check the forecasts. But always, if in doubt, call them out, and they will be there.