independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

'Then the mayday call came... Crackling, the message said the Astrid was on the rocks'

THE impressive silhouette of the Astrid was the first thing I saw as we rounded the bay on the road from Cork heading into Oysterhaven.

Its masts towered over the other sail boats like something from 'Pirates of the Caribbean'.

It would have been impossible to imagine that just a few hours later its young crew would be lifted from lifeboats shaken and weeping while their ship crashed against the rocky Cork mainland, unlikely ever to sail again.

I had been invited to take part in The Gathering Cruise, as part of a flotilla of ships sailing from Oysterhaven to Kinsale where a Parade of Sails would take place as part of the tourism initiative.

There were five of us on board our ship, The Lynx, and as we set sail, passing the impressive Dutch tallship, most of our questions had been about the Astrid, her age, where her crew were from and what her history was. As the largest ship in our midst she was the main talking point.

BATTERED

There had been a gentle, muggy breeze in the bay, but after just a few minutes when we approached the Sovereign Islands and open water, the wind picked up. As a novice sailor, I found pitching at 38 degrees nerve-wracking enough as we hit squalls that drenched us with spray.

Then the mayday call came over the radio. Crackling, the message said the Astrid was on the rocks and needed assistance – there were 30 on board.

It felt like a bad joke until we looked over and saw the huge ship being battered against the rocks, its masts lilting dangerously towards the water, as waves crashed on to the deck.

With a deep hull, it would have been dangerous to try and manoeuvre our boat closer or help pull it from the rocks. There was nothing we could do but wait and watch and hope that help would come.

The other ships clearly felt the same. They clustered round the flailing vessel as its crew scrabbled to inflate full life jackets and launch rafts.

A small inshore lifeboat soon arrived at the scene, but in the relentless waves, it was virtually pitched on to the Astrid's deck, which was now taking on water. Other rigs appeared, but at our distance, we were relying on the radio to tell us everyone was safe.

Details were unsettlingly vague. At one point, it sounded like 12 people sustained injuries; an ambulance had been called.

As the main lifeboat appeared on the horizon, we pulled away from the scene. It was a muted journey into Kinsale harbour, a far cry from the celebratory Parade of Sails we'd anticipated.

As the large RLNI lifeboat passed us pulling a life raft, the few crew we could see on deck looked ashen-faced. Many of those on board the Astrid were teenagers and they now poured on to the dock looking cold, shaken and some of them in tears.

Their oversized life jackets only made them look smaller and more vulnerable.

We watched from our deck, unable to moor in the commotion – powerless once again to do anything to help.

By the time I arrived on dry land, the helicopters had gone and the sea of high-visibility jackets of gardai and ambulance crew had dissipated.

Those who had been plucked from the sinking vessel had been taken into nearby hotels for hot showers and hugs.

Watching the news in my own hotel room, it was hard to believe that the huge vessel I was watching partially submerged on screen was the same one I'd seen earlier.

Irish Independent

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