A blackout rescue: Unbelievable rain and howling wind
‘It was Monday 15 April,’ says Coxswain Roy Abrahamsson. ‘I remember that because it was my birthday. My 2-year-old was excited because there were plans to bring me breakfast in bed. But no, I got a shout instead!’
And it was no huge surprise. Roy and his crew had been tossing and turning in their beds all night, after an earlier tip-off from the coastguard. On the Sunday, Verlaine, a 25m fishing vessel with five crew and laden with fish, had fouled its propeller off Kinsale and was adrift without engine power.
’26 hours they’d been at it’
The crew of Alma Amy, another trawler, had spent 3 hours trying to get a line to Verlaine in atrocious weather.
Then they had towed it 40 miles south of Kinsale towards Dunmore East.
‘26 hours they’d been at it,’ says Roy. ‘They needed help getting around the breakwater and into harbour.’
Given the conditions, the coastguard knew that it was safer for Dunmore East RNLI to take over the tow. The volunteer crew were trained for this very task and their all-weather Trent class Elizabeth and Ronald had superior manoeuvrability.
'The worst I’d seen in years’
‘I got an update late Sunday night, so I knew we’d be needed around 4.30am,’ says Roy. ‘I sent a text to the crew, so we were all anticipating the call. And I kept an eye on the weather which was deteriorating fast. A south-easterly was blowing onshore and the rain was torrential, the worst I’d seen in years.
'When you get advance notice like that, the shout is in the back of your mind the whole time. I knew what we had to do and was running through it in my head.’
Roy left home around 3.45am to make sure the pager didn’t wake his family and, when he got to the lifeboat station, most of his crew mates were there having coffee. They couldn’t sleep either. By now, Alma Amy and Verlaine were in the lee of Hook Head, 2 miles east of Dunmore East. The pagers went off just after 4.30am and the RNLI crew launched Elizabeth and Ronald into the gale.
The lifeboat crew got the full brunt of the Force 9 with rain, hail and 6m waves. ‘I was up in the Trent’s flying bridge when we went out across the harbour,’ says Roy. ‘But I had to go inside the wheelhouse because I couldn’t see a thing. The rain was coming in sideways at us, pelting off our helmets.
We tried picking up the two vessels on the radar. We were kind of getting them but not really. Fortunately, we could see them on the AIS (automatic identification system) and get Alma Amy on the radio.’
‘We just couldn’t see her’
But as the lifeboat crew neared the pick-up point, they could only make out one vessel. Roy says: ‘We had to double check with the skipper of Alma Amy whether Verlaine actually had power and lights because we just couldn’t see her. They said she had.’
There was no moonlight and visibility was zero at this point. It was only when the RNLI crew got virtually alongside the casualty vessel that they could see it. ‘The rain was unbelievable, and the wind was howling,’ says Roy. ‘It wasn’t ideal.’
Working in the foul weather, the RNLI volunteers managed to get a tow rope across, secured the casualty, and began the difficult journey back to harbour.
‘The crew shaped up really well,’ says Roy. ‘We had trainee Bill Deevy onboard, it was his first full-on shout and it really opened his eyes. We also had Brendan Dunne, one of our longest serving crew members, along with Crew Members Alex Coleman and Dave Murray.
‘Communication between us was key. I needed to direct from back up in the flying bridge, but the wind noise was so bad that we couldn’t hear each other over our headsets. So Brendan stood between me and the lads on deck, acting as a middleman. I was shouting commands down to him and he was relaying them to crew.’
‘I shouted “go!”
They set up a long tow length at first, but Roy knew they would have to adjust it to get greater control over Verlaine as they hit larger swells and made the 90 degree turn into harbour. Timing was crucial.
‘I was watching the other boats, seeing how they moved, and then shouting down to the crew to shorten the tow bit by bit until we got into the breakwater,’ he says.
‘We shortened it three or four times. The crew on deck knew I couldn’t give them any notice when to do that. I just shouted “go!”
‘I did deck work as a volunteer for 20 years, so I know how long these things take. But as coxswain, time felt like it was slowing down for me. I needed to make quick, informed decisions but then wait for my crew to do their bit properly too.’
After an hour of careful towing, all three vessels made it safely into harbour. Verlaine berthed just before 6am. ‘Of course, the weather died down as soon as we got into harbour!’ says Roy.
By the time the lifeboat was refuelled and ready for service again, it was gone 8am – and it was lunchtime by the time Roy had done all the necessary equipment checks and paperwork.
‘This was one of our more difficult shouts,’ he says. I don’t think any of us realised how hard it was until afterwards. For me, it was mentally exhausting. As coxswain, I’m only as good as my crew on deck – and this really was a brilliant team effort.’
‘It was one of the most physical shouts I’d done’Alex Coleman, Crew Member
‘The energy we exerted on deck, constantly moving and doing ropework, really took it out of us. I’m not an unfit guy but it left me gasping for breath – like I’d been on a treadmill giving it the absolute beans!
‘A tow rope is strong in some ways but it’s also the weakest part of the boat. One wrong turn around that breakwater and the rope would have snapped, and Verlaine would have gone aground. So, there were moments where it could have gone very wrong, very quickly.
'I snuck back into bed afterwards and my wife said: “Agh! you’re freezing!” She had no concept of what I’d just been doing, which was probably ideal. And even though my adrenaline was pumping, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep straight away.’
‘We didn’t realise how bad it was’
Dave Murray, Mechanic
‘Roy gave us the heads-up so I was awake, waiting for the pager. My father got up for work at 5.30am and said he could see the weather coming across the harbour and our lights disappearing behind it.
‘It probably looked 10 times worse to him. We were out in it and couldn’t see anything, so I suppose we didn’t realise how bad it was.’
‘They’re shy and modest guys’
Neville Murphy, Dunmore East Lifeboat Press Officer, says: ‘They’re shy and modest guys – and rarely talk about what they’ve done. This is the first time they’ve spoken about this rescue.’
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