Disaster narrowly avoided as squall capsizes boats in race
A YACHT club has defended its decision to run a race which narrowly avoided descending into a major disaster.
There were chaotic scenes at the GP14 World Championship yacht race after a sudden squall capsized several boats with around 20 people - including several children - ending up in the water.
Initially it was feared that as many as 95 people had tumbled into the water in Strangford Lough, Co Down. However, following the end of the incident, the coastguard confirmed that 20 went overboard.
A major rescue operation was staged from around 2pm yesterday, and completed by just after 4pm.
The Irish Coast Guard sent a helicopter from Dublin while a second was sent from RAF Valley in Wales to help the Bangor and Portaferry Coastguard rescue teams and the Portaferry and Newcastle RNLI lifeboats with the effort.
The Ulster Hospital declared a major incident as it awaited the arrival of casualties.
In the end, only two people sustained minor injuries while many more were reported as suffering from hypothermia.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) set up first aid tents at the scene.
NIAS spokesman John McPoland said it was very fortunate that nobody was seriously injured.
Liam Colquhoun, watch manager at Belfast Coastguard, described the weather conditions on scene as "pretty treacherous, with winds gusting up to 60mph".
"We're very thankful that everyone has safely returned," he said.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers commended the rescue workers. "I wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured. I commend the emergency response teams for their commitment and professionalism. They did an amazing job," she said.
The GP14 world championship event sees one of the biggest fleets of single class twin crew dinghies assemble in Northern Ireland. With an international following, the week-long event attracted about 200 competitors, some from as far away as Australia.
A practis e session had been cancelled because of high winds, but a spokesman for East Down Yacht Club said that they were happy enough that the event went ahead yesterday. "This is a world championship event, we are not dealing with amateurs, these are people who know what they are doing," he said.
The yacht club said it was the first day of the event which started at 12pm in wind speeds of 17 knots and 88 boats took part. However, towards the end of the first race, the race officer decided that because of the worsening weather conditions the second race of the day would be cancelled.
"The signal for the race cancellation was displayed and the safety boat crews were informed that racing for the day was finished," the statement said. "The fleet started to head ashore when a strong squall of 31 knots came over the race area.
"The effect of this was that some of the GP14 Boats capsized. This is not an unusual situation and crew are trained on how to 'right' their boat.
"Unfortunately, a further stronger squall registering 37 knots followed the first, capsizing a further number of the fleet."
The yacht club insisted that no more than 10-12 boats capsized at any one time. "The race officer then made the correct decision, as a precaution, to contact the Coast Guard should the weather conditions worsen.
"Apart from two competitors with suspected broken limbs, no one in the event was seriously injured other than minor scratches, cuts and bruises, consistent with the sport at this level."