THE festive season is like any other season for the volunteers of the RNLI, who are on call 24/7, braving rough seas and winter weather to save lives at sea.
They leave the unwrapping of the presents, the carving of the turkey, the warmth of the family bosom, to undertake the most important task of all — saving lives at sea.
Kieran Cotter, who is 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 I 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.”
Was Kieran affected by the wrath of the unforgiving sea who claimed so many lives in its wake?
“You’d always be apprehensive,” says Kieran, who was involved in rescuing 16 crew members from the yacht, the Rambler, that capsized when its 140 foot mast cracked and fell in the water during the Fastnet Race in August 1979.
“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.”
The RNLI volunteers have no fear facing the might of the sea.
“Crew members are all well-trained, the training we are given here and in Poole, Dorset, is excellent,” says Kieran.
“And the lifeboats are built for solid sea-worthiness and facing storms and bad weather.”
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 ever-ready for all eventualities all year round, no matter what.
“I remember I was just back from a wedding when Charles Haughey’s boat ran into navigational problems and it got stuck in a rock and sank. I was just in bed when I got the call,” says Kieran.
As ever, Kieran answered the call.
“We collected him and four others. I didn’t recognise Charles Haughey at first!”
The courageous efforts of the lifeboat 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 as well.
“Sea rescues can be dramatic,” says Kieran. “When all survive, it is a great piece of good fortune.”
The fortunes of sea-faring men are never forgotten in coastal communities throughout Ireland.
The LAST (Lost at Sea Tragedies) organisation was founded by Castletownbere man, Noel McDonagh, after three Waterford brothers, the Bolgers, Paul, Kenny and Shane, were lost at sea in 2013.
“I have seen many tragedies,” says Noel.
“Friends, relatives, have been lost at sea. LAST aims to offer financial help to those families who have lost a loved one at sea. Several coastal communities arrange a memorial service on St Stephen’s Day to think of the fishermen lost at sea and their families.”
When 19-year-old Sile Scanlon, who is one of the youngest volunteers with Ballycotton life-boat, was rescued from a kayaking excursion off Ballycotton light-house two years ago, she knew she would sign up to save lives at sea.
“I always knew that I wanted to join the crew,” says Sile.
“But when I was rescued myself, I experienced first-hand the value of the charity’s life-saving work. My uncle, Eoin Walsh, is the coxswain with the life-boat. Living in the village, the Ballycotton life-boat is part of all our lives.”
Will she put party nights on hold over Christmas?
“If the pager goes off; then we are all on alert to answer the call,” says Sile. “Two or three of us will take out a small boat and go across to see the Garryvoe swim on Christmas morning, weather permitting.”
When the weather turned a couple of years ago at Christmas, Peter O’Shea, mechanic with the Ballycotton life-boat, thought he saw signs of life on Ballycotton Island.
“A family from aboard were trapped on the island,” says Peter.
“They had gone for a walk on Christmas morning, and when they were heading back, the tide came in and the channels were flooded with water. The family were trapped. The lifeboat crew showed up.
“Everyone got off the island safety and we all went home for our dinner!”
Christmas Day is a day like any other day for RNLI volunteers.
“I’m usually on call at Christmas. It’s my job,” says Peter.
“For years, I sat at home when the weather was bad, hoping that there was no call. But the lifeboat volunteers are ever–ready when the pagers go off to launch the lifeboat and go to sea. Lots of fishing boats are tied up by the pier. Fishermen are dependent on them for their living. We always hope nothing happens to them. The cliff walk was always a traditional walk for people at Christmas. We are vigilant keeping an eye out for people’s safety there too.”
Generations of East Cork families have been involved in the Ballycotton lifeboat crew over the years. Colum Sliney handed back his pager this year after 53 years service with the life-boat.
“My grandfather, grand-uncle and father, were all life-boat crew members, saving 162 lives at sea,” says Colum.
Alan Cott is one of 39 ambassadors spear-heading Respect the Water campaign, visiting GAA clubs all year to raise awareness about water safety. He knows the sorrow and devastation a loss of life can have on family members and communities.
Alan lost his brother, Glynn, 12 years ago in a trawler tragedy, one of two men killed when the Maggie B sank off Hook Head on March 29, 2006.
“One survivor was found on an up-turned life raft,” says Alan.
Alan joined the RNLI four years ago, realising the awful aftermath a tragedy at sea can wreak on communities near and far.
“I wanted to join the RNLI 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 Dad was a fisherman, doesn’t want other families to go through the devastation caused by the loss of a loved one at sea.
“It is only like yesterday,” says Alan, speaking about Glynn.
“He was my big brother. You know, someone I looked up to. He looked out for you.”
Sheila O’Driscoll has championed the RNLI during her lifetime.
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 help drive a successful campaign to bring the lifeboat to the fishing port, and also raise hundreds of euro for the service and the station?
“I roped in a lot of people,” says Sheila. “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, intent on her mission for a cause close to her heart, was a force to be reckoned with.
“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!”
Sheila has received numerous awards for her mammoth efforts over the years, supporting the RNLI volunteers who answer the call all year round.
“We have a great crew and group of people who are involved in the lifeboat here in Castletownbere now,” she says.
- The RNLI, with 237 stations and 444 lifeboats, is a charity in the UK and Ireland, principally funded by legacies and donations. Most of the crew are unpaid volunteers. See www.rnli.org.
Christmas Day is like any other day for RNLI volunteers. Kieran Cotter, a coxswain with the Baltimore lifeboat, and his colleagues tell Chris Dunne about their work and why they put their lives on the lines to keep others safe