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Sunday 17 December 2017

Dashed against the rocks, but never say die

'Certainly, stormy weather may wreak havoc on land - but it is especially lethal at sea, turning waves into weapons of destruction' Photo: REUTERS/Mike Blake
'Certainly, stormy weather may wreak havoc on land - but it is especially lethal at sea, turning waves into weapons of destruction' Photo: REUTERS/Mike Blake

Fiona O'Connell

We are three weeks and one day into the new year - and hence well ensconced in winter. But some folk go further than lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Like Canice Hogan, who has lit up a tree outside his magnificent old mill on this country town's waterfront, so it glows like a ghost ship at night.

Certainly, stormy weather may wreak havoc on land - but it is especially lethal at sea, turning waves into weapons of destruction. My tales last week about shipwrecks off the tiny but treacherous Keeragh Islands pale in comparison to the worst disasters that happen at sea. Though tragedy was matched by heroism in one case I have in mind, which remains one of the greatest rescue operations ever undertaken off the Irish coast.

It happened on February 20, 1914, when the Norwegian schooner Mexico was driven into Bannow Bay in a bad south-south-west gale and lost her bearings. Captain Eriksen described "mountain-high waves" as they were approaching the South Keeragh Islands.

Her plight was spotted in Fethard, where the lifeboat Helen Blake set out to help. It was just a few hundred yards from the infamous islands when Garrett Handrick recalled three "terrible waves".

The first filled the boat; the second struck her with terrible force; while the third toppled the crew from the vessel.

Fellow crew member John McNamara was swirled about in the breakers before being caught by a tremendous wave and dashed towards an alcove in the cliff. Here, he managed to grab Handrick by a hook on his lifebelt.

"Handrick shouted out to me to let him go and save myself if I could," McNamara remembered. "I answered: 'I suppose they are all gone now but the two of us - and we will go or come together'."

Indeed, only five of the 14 crew members made it ashore. Yet those brave men then set about rescuing the crew of the Mexico and soon had all nine safely off the schooner and on the island.

But they were still in deep water. From Friday until Monday the 14 survivors huddled on the gale-swept isle as attempts to rescue them failed. One of the Mexico's crew died from exposure on Sunday and his body was covered with canvas and sods.

The remaining 13 knew they faced certain death unless rescuers came soon. They had nothing to eat except two small tins of preserved meat and raw limpets. Their only drink was a little brandy and half a pint of wine, plus rainwater pooling in the alcoves.

On Monday morning, the Dunmore East lifeboat managed to rescue two men. Then the Rosslare lifeboat got close enough for James Wickham and William Duggan to drag two more aboard their punt - before it was flung against rocks and holed. They hastily plugged the gap with a loaf of bread inside some packing and made four more hazardous trips to rescue the remaining men.

Thereby saving the day by defying the darkness.

Sunday Independent

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