THIRTY sailors – including eight teenage Irish trainees – cheated death after they were dramatically rescued from a 95-year-old brig just minutes before it was smashed to pieces on rocks.
The 42-metre Tall Ship 'Astrid' sparked one of the biggest air-sea rescues in Irish history as the RNLI and Irish Coastguard raced to snatch the 30 crew and trainees to safety before the ship sank following a disastrous engine failure off the Cork coast.
The brig, which survived two world wars and a major fire in the 1970s, began to break up just minutes after the last crew members left the deck of the Dutch-owned vessel.
One trainee, Rose Lynch (16), said everyone on board was "frightened but calm" as rescuers battled heavy seas and 30-knot gusts to save those on board. Irish Coastguard director Declan Geoghegan said it was arguably the most "challenging and complex rescue" they had ever faced.
The rescue involved two Irish Coastguard helicopters, three lifeboats and a flotilla of small craft racing to the scene between Oysterhaven and Kinsale off the south Cork coast.
The 30 crew and trainees from six countries– including Holland, France, Belgium, the UK, Ireland and Spain – all escaped injury as 18 jumped into a life raft while 12 others scrambled via the Kinsale RNLI lifeboat onto the Irish Sailing Association's 'Spirit of Oysterhaven' yacht.
Darragh Comiskey (17), from Wexford, sent his mother, Lorraine, a text message seconds after the ship had been driven onto rocks by stormy seas.
"He sent me a text saying the ship was sinking. I thought he was joking at first but then I realised something had gone wrong," Lorraine told the Irish Independent.
Darragh, a student at Wexford CBS who sits his Leaving Cert next year, said everyone on board stayed calm because of the cool professionalism of the crew and rescue services.
"It was all a bit unreal. We never thought for a second we weren't going to be rescued. There were loads of boats around the place. I just want to say 'thanks' to the Irish Coastguard and the RNLI for saving us," he said.
Darragh got a hug from his relieved mother when he was brought safely ashore at Kinsale Yacht Club, while his two younger sisters, Shannon and Aisling, beamed their delight.
Fellow trainee Rose Lynch (16), from Gorey, Co Wexford, said the experience won't put her off sailing.
"I'll definitely be going back out again. I think we are all pinching ourselves to see that it actually happened. Everyone was a bit frightened but no one panicked. We were all calm because of the training," she said.
"But it makes you appreciate everything you have. No one was hurt, thank God. But people lost everything they owned from passports to money and clothing."
Map shows area where Astrid was shipwrecked
'Astrid' skipper, Dutch national Pieter de Kam (62), said his priority was that everyone on board was safe.
"We seemed to lose power from the engine . . . the weather was not so good. We were pushed onto the rocks and that was it," he said.
Captain de Kam paid tribute to the "outstanding work" of the Irish rescue services and the kindness of the Kinsale community.
ISA official Harry Harmon, who was watching the 'Astrid' lead a flotilla of boats towards Kinsale, heard Captain de Kam's mayday alert and desperately tried to keep the brig off the rocks. "I brought our Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) alongside and tried to help.
"But I just didn't have the power needed and she (Astrid) was just too big. There was nothing we could do to push her to safety," he said.
Minutes after the last crew and trainees were taken to safety, the brig began to break up as she was repeatedly hammered against the cliff.
Naval Service divers are now expected to examine the wreck to determine the cause of the accident and recover whatever personal documents they can.
The 'Astrid' was visiting Ireland as part of 'The Gathering' festivities and was on a cruise from Southampton to Cherbourg in France.