The day a brave tug boat crew from Cork saved lives on windswept sea

In his weekly column Trevor Laffan remembers a tug boat crew from Cork who saved lives in a dramatic rescue
The day a brave tug boat crew from Cork saved lives on windswept sea

LENDING A HAND: The Finnish barque, Grace Harvar, being towed by tug into Cork docks in July, 1934

I PASS the tugs berthed at the Deep-Water Quay almost every day when I go out for a walk. They’re powerful boats for their size, and they need to be because they are workhorses.

They’re the marine version of tow trucks and fire engines, and there is usually one of them stationed off the oil refinery in Whitegate in case of emergency.

I’ve seen them motoring around the harbour since I was a child, but beyond that, I never really took much notice of what they did, to be honest, until I was chatting to Mick Mulcahy recently.

He reminded me that his dad worked on the tugs for years and told me to give him a call. Mick is best remembered for his famous 96fm wind-ups, but he also has a great love for the sea which he probably gets from his dad.

Tony Mulcahy is a retired Tug Master, and he gave me an insight into tug life. He joined the company in 1964 and he had plenty of stories to tell. I think they were called Irish Tugs Ltd initially, but then Cory Towage took over and the tugs are now operated by Doyle Shipping Group.

I don’t have space to go into too much detail, but I’ll try to give you a flavour of the type of life they had.

Two days before Christmas in 1978, Tony was at home when the manager of Irish Tugs Ltd arrived at his front door and straight away, he knew something was up. A small tanker, The Rathmore, was in trouble just three miles outside Cork Harbour and Tony was told to get there urgently.

It was Saturday afternoon, about 3pm, when he rushed off to the Thorngarth, to join the other five members of the crew, all experienced men. This was an emergency situation, so time was of the essence.

It had been blowing an easterly gale all day, and the forecast was bad, so they knew what was ahead of them. They were expecting to hit rough seas, so they tied everything down as they went.

Tony Mulcahy.
Tony Mulcahy.

The Rathmore, a tanker of about 700 tons, had been in difficulty since early morning and was dangerously close to going aground near to a place called Fishpoint, three miles south of the entrance to Cork Harbour and close to Rinabella Bay and Fountainstown. It was a dangerous situation because The Rathmore had already lost one anchor and as the weather had worsened, there was a possibility it could lose the other one as well.

As the tug passed Roches Point, it started rolling violently, tossing the crew about like a cork on the water. By the time they reached the stricken tanker, they were being battered by huge waves and as they stepped out on deck, they found themselves working in waist deep water. They had trouble staying on their feet.

The tug was drenched with water most of the time, with waves coming at them from all directions. On one occasion, Tony was knocked off his feet and blown against the side of the tug, which was submerged at the time, and he hit it so hard with his chest that he lost his breath.

It was a dangerous situation, with both the tanker and the tug rising high with the waves and then dropping from sight. They knew if the tug got damaged, they were in serious trouble.

After battling the conditions for a couple of hours, they finally got a towline connected to The Rathmore and started to head back to safety, but the tow rope was too short for the conditions and they feared it would break.

The men had been working in water since arriving on the scene and were frozen to the bone, but they weren’t finished yet.

Tony needed to get an extension line onto the tow rope but that wasn’t going to be easy in the prevailing conditions. Lying on their backs under the tow rope, the crew members bided their time until they got the opportunity to fit the extension line. It would have been a tough ask at the best of times, and the storm made everything even more hazardous, but they pulled it off.

Tony joined the skipper, Joe Keane, on the bridge and offered to relieve him at the wheel but he refused. Joe couldn’t talk. His mouth was so dry, he couldn’t even moisten his lips.

When they got into the harbour, they brought The Rathmore to a safe anchorage and the Mate of the boat came aboard the tug and spoke to the crew. He shook their hands and thanked them for saving their lives. He couldn’t believe what the men of the Thorngarth had gone through.

The Rathmore men knew they were in a bad situation, but when they saw what the tug crew were having to deal with, they felt safer on their boat.

The Mate said the tug looked more like a submarine than a tug and at one stage they feared that when the tug reappeared out of the waves, someone would have been lost.

The Rathmore was berthed at 9pm at the Deepwater Quay in Cobh and the men went off duty. Just another day’s work for the tug men.

They didn’t realise until later that the Thorngarth had been severely damaged and required some huge repairs.

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