Five sailors feared dead after freak wave sinks cargo ship
Published 28/11/2011 | 05:00
A desperate 14-hour search to save the lives of five sailors missing after a freak wave broke their ship in two was called off last night as hopes the men will be found alive faded.
An RAF search and rescue helicopter, co-piloted by Britain's Prince William, plucked two survivors to safety in the early hours of yesterday morning after they had been found clinging to life rafts that were being battered by huge waves in the Irish Sea.
They were among eight sailors swept into the sea after their 81-metre cargo ship, the 'Swanland', sank in just seven minutes during "horrendous" weather conditions.
An Irish Coastguard helicopter crew later recovered the body of another sailor.
However, the remaining five crew members, who are understood to be Russian nationals, were still missing last night, despite two more life rafts being spotted on a remote island and a coastal peninsula.
There were no signs of life in the beached rafts but attempts to reach them proved too dangerous due to the gale-force winds that had driven them onto the rocks.
One of the two rescued sailors described how the ship's hull snapped after being hit by a wave, sinking the vessel in minutes.
Yesterday's emergency started when the captain of the 'Swanland' issued a Mayday call at 2am warning that the ship's hull was cracking and his vessel was taking on water after being hit by an "enormous" wave in a force eight gale.
By the time lifeboats and rescue helicopters reached the scene, about 20 miles off the Welsh coast, all that was left of the ship, which was carrying 3,000 tonnes of limestone, was some flotsam and two life rafts with two sailors clinging to them. Two Irish Coastguard S-61 helicopters, an Air Corps CASA maritime patrol plane and an Irish naval vessel, the LE Roisin, were sent to the area to assist the search and rescue operation.
An Irish Coastguard spokeswoman said that the rapid sinking happened after the ship's cargo turned it over after the initial impact of the freak wave.
"It was hit by a very large wave but because there was 3,000 tonnes of limestone, that caused it to go over on its side," she said.
"It just goes to show you how quickly something like this can happen."
The ship is understood to have gone down 12 nautical miles off Bardsey Island on the Welsh coastline at about 2.10am.
The Irish Coastguard dispatched one helicopter from Dublin at 2.30am and one from Waterford at 4.05am.
"It was force eight to nine (winds) with very rough seas and that didn't help things," the spokeswoman said.
"Some of (the sailors) were on the bridge of the vessel and some of them were in their quarters when it happened."
Holyhead Coastguard watch manager Ray Carson said the two survivors were physically well but suffering from shock.
"In broken English and through drawing a diagram, the second officer told us the ship was hit by an enormous wave," he said.
"It rolled the ship and broke its back. He said this led to a catastrophic failure of the vessel."
The search operation was suspended as night fell but fears were growing that the five men could not have survived the hostile conditions, even though some are believed to be wearing specialist immersion suits designed to slow the onset of hypothermia and equipped with strobe lights to help rescuers locate them.
Search operations for the missing men were due to resume today.
The mission is being coordinated through the Holyhead Coastguard and a decision on whether Irish helicopters will continue to assist will be taken today.
The sinking comes just over a year after the same ship, owned by a Grimsby company but flagged to the Cook Islands and crewed by Russians, had to be rescued after coming perilously close to running aground in Cornwall.
The ship, with a crew of nine, had suffered engine failure in high winds as it carried a cargo of stone in the early hours of August 20. Falmouth Coastguard successfully towed the ship to safety without any casualties on that occasion.