Meet the women behind a Cork search and rescue group

Blackwater Search and Rescue has attracted a large number of female volunteers — some of the highest in the country. In WoW! EMMA CONNOLLY talks to some of the women, as the group continues a fundraising drive for their important work
Meet the women behind a Cork search and rescue group

Nena McAuliffe with Finbarr Mulcahy, also a member of Blackwater Search and Rescue.

CORK’S Blackwater Search and Rescue divers, volunteers and supporters are each striving to run, walk, swim, cycle or row the length of their local river to raise vital funds so they can help families in their time of need.

They have set themselves a deadline of May 31 to have clocked up 169km, the equivalent of the River Blackwater, to raise €20,000 to support their volunteer search and rescue missions in their local communities and nationwide.

Like so many other volunteer groups, the pandemic has totally derailed their usual fundraising activities, hence their Blackwater 169 Challenge which got underway in March.

Based in Fermoy, the SAR unit is part of the Blackwater Sub Aqua Club, and members have been involved in operations since 1981. The work of the unit varies from providing rescue cover for water-based events, to the more difficult task of recovery of missing persons from local waterways.

Over that period, they have participated in more than 200 search and rescue operations across Ireland, often working in the most difficult of conditions.

“All members are volunteers who pay for their own personal gear, medical expenses, training and often organise time off from work to carry out vital search efforts. 

"While we operate most regularly in the Cork and Munster areas, the unit is often tasked to search nationwide.

“Among other national call-outs, Blackwater SAR took part in the operation off Blacksod in Mayo following the crash of an Irish Coast Guard Rescue helicopter and the tragic death of all four on board. 

"In 2021, to date we have been involved in two events over 11 days in the local area,” said a spokesperson.

Interestingly, the club have attracted large numbers of female members, some of the highest in the country, with many saying that joining the club one of their best decisions.

The Sub Aqua Club has 34 members, six of whom are women. The SAR unit has 24 members (divers, coxswains and team support members) four of whom are women, along with two trainee coxswains, and they are:

Susan Vaughan.
Susan Vaughan.

Susan Vaughan, diver

Susan, a neo-natal nurse in CUH, joined the club in 2015 and has been a SAR diver since February, 2020.

Her husband and father are very involved in the club, and Susan was motivated to get involved to help families in their time of need.

“I felt I could help bring closure to families by bringing home their loved ones,” the Ballyhooly woman said.

A recreational scuba diver, she admits search and recovery diving is a whole different world, and one that’s not for everyone.

“There is a mental strength required. I suppose I’ve been nursing for 30 years so I feel equipped to help people in times of grief and trauma. That’s my motivation, to be able to give families that final closure,” she said.

Susan only qualified last year but has already been involved in two local recoveries.

“It’s not something I feel I could have done in my thirties,” she admits.

“But you are very well supported and trained in the unit, and when you’re searching you’re really just thinking of the families who are often times waiting on the river bank.”

Back left to right: Judith and Catrina Mathews. Front, left to right, Denise and Susan Vaughan.
Back left to right: Judith and Catrina Mathews. Front, left to right, Denise and Susan Vaughan.

Catrina Mathews, diver

When Catrina Mathews saw a sign in a barber shop in Fermoy encouraging people to ‘try a dive’ with the Blackwater club back in 2015, she figured she’d give it a go.

“To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what kind of swimmer I was; in fact, I wasn’t even really a fan of water at all. 

"I just thought it would be a way of meeting new people and trying something new,” she admits.

But after that first night in the local pool, followed by her first dive in Cork harbour, she was completely hooked, and has never looked back.

From Tralee, and living in Rathcormac, she quickly qualified in different areas with the unit, and says it’s now an important part of her life.

“Where ever there’s water is where you’ll find me,” said Catrina, who works in accountancy.

Prior to joining the club she would have described herself as shy: “I’ll be 50 next year and it really made me push myself, it has given me huge confidence and shown great confidence in me. I’d really encourage anyone to get involved.”

Judith O’Brien, diver

Judith joined the club around 16 years ago and has received a medal in recognition of her long service to SAR.

She jokes that she only got involved after going on about it non-stop to a friend, who told her to stop talking and to sign up! Since then, she’s been involved in several searches, and has helped bring closure to many families.

Being part of a club where all members have a shared interest is a big part of her life, and she said she’s missed diving terribly during Covid lockdowns.

She was due to go on a diving holiday with other members last September to the Azores, which naturally was cancelled, and she can’t wait to get back to the sea.

Search and Rescue Diver Support Member Denise O'Mahony.
Search and Rescue Diver Support Member Denise O'Mahony.

Denise O’Mahony, team support member

Denise is the newest member of the team having joined in 2021, and is a land-based support member and now a trainee coxswain — essentially, training to drive the diver’s boat, manage the navigation and their safety.

She doesn’t dive, but swims all year round and loves everything about water.

“The idea of being able to help the community was very appealing to me, which is why I joined,” she said.

Denise, a dental nurse, was involved in a recovery operation last January on the Blackwater.

“Naturally, the idea of being in a SAR operation can be daunting, and until you experience it yourself, it doesn’t matter how much training you’ve had. I wasn’t there for the actual recovery, but you just mentally prepare yourself as well as you can in advance,” she said.

Denise is an open water swimmer, 365 days of the year without a wetsuit, and can’t wait to get back to the ocean after a long lockdown.

“We’re very lucky though to have a reservoir locally here which is a fantastic amenity,” she said.

Carol Aspil, trainee coxswain.
Carol Aspil, trainee coxswain.

Carol Aspil, trainee coxswain

Carol admits she’s always been frightened by water — in fact, the sight of the ocean would bring on palpitations.

No wonder that her partner, who has been involved in scuba diving for the past 30 years, looked surprised when she said she was going to join him as a member of the Blackwater SAR unit!

Originally from Dublin, and living in North Cork, Carol explained how after changing jobs in 2019 she had weekends free for the first time in years.

“I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone with a new hobby, so I decided I’d volunteer as a trainee coxswain. 

"My partner is involved with the club and I knew they were a good bunch of people, and I wanted to try something different, and importantly something with a purpose,” she said.

Covid has halted her training for now, but she’s looking forward to getting back on the water.

In the meantime, the mum of four has been busy minding two of her six grandchildren over the past few months.

Nena McAuliffe, trainee coxswain

Originally from Colombia, Nena was in fact the second female member of the club, after Judith. Married to an Irish man and living here since 2006, the avid swimmer spotted an invite from the club to ‘try a dive’ one evening in Fermoy pool.

“That was in 2010, I went along to try it and I’ve been hooked ever since,” she said.

Recently moved from Kilworth to Kilfinane, Nena dives recreationally with the club and is currently training to be a coxswain. She said joining the club was one of her wisest decisions and she love that it has attracted so many female members, all with common interests: “I’ve made some great friendships.”

To get involved or to donate see the Blackwater Sub Aqua Club Facebook page

Or you can donate to the group’s ongoing fundraiser at www.idonate.ie/blackwater169challenge

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