A 'SMALL craft' warning from Met Eireann was ignored by race organisers who allowed more than 100 children to take part in a regatta which could easily have ended in tragedy.
fter strong winds and waves capsized their tiny boats, 110 children were dramatically plucked from the sea yesterday in one of the biggest-ever rescue operations of its kind in the State.
The frightened sailors, some as young as 12, were flung into the sea as many of the 91 vessels capsized during the junior regatta in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin early in the afternoon.
Their small crafts, both one- and two-seater, were less than a mile off the coast when suddenly gusting winds of up to 33 knots (39mph) and surging waves knocked them into the water.
Parents and relatives who were standing along the pier watched in horror.
The Dublin Major Emergency Plan was activated. Rescue services from as far away as the midlands and the south-east were ordered to the scene.
Despite fears of many deaths, all of the 110 children - who had all been wearing life jackets - were accounted for.
Fifteen young sailors and one adult were taken to hospital suffering from shock and exposure, while around 200 people received medical attention at the scene.
One young yachtsmen described the moment their world turned to chaos.
"Suddenly a big black cloud rolled in. By the end it was a sea of white, there were kids struggling everywhere," Theo Murphy (18) from Belfast said.
Sian Kneafsey (12) from Dartry, Dublin said: "I was pretty scared. I was in the water and just started screaming for the ribs [rescue boats]. It got really stormy and windy out of nowhere, it was horrible."
Emergency services were notified moments after the squall hit. The Howth and Dun Laoghaire lifeboats and the Irish Coastguard's Dauphin helicopter were deployed within minutes.
The LE Aoife, which was about to depart on a fisheries protection patrol, deployed two rigid inflatables. The Irish Lights vessel and many private craft also helped in the massive rescue operation.
Five units of Dublin Fire Brigade's swift water-rescue crews were deployed, and 32 ambulances attended.
The 16 patients were taken to various Dublin hospitals. Ten went to St Vincent's, two to St James‘s, three to St Michael's, Dun Laoghaire, and one to Crumlin Children's Hospital. Last night it emerged that Met Eireann had issued a gale and 'small craft' warning earlier in the day, advising people not to take to the water in small boats.
Despite this, the race organisers felt that conditions were suitable for sailing. Nineteen rescue craft with adult sailors were in place to monitor the young sailors.
The organisers. the Royal St George Yacht Club, could not be contacted last night to explain why the race went ahead despite the warnings by Met Eireann.
A spokesperson for Dun Laoghaire Harbour Company said there had been 28-knot winds at the time.
The children came from four yacht clubs in Dun Laoghaire and clubs in Dublin and across the country.
A major investigation will be launched this morning by the Marine Casualty Investigations Board. The Irish Coastguard has sought a full report from the Irish Sailing Association into what exactly happened.
Last night President Mary McAleese said a "major tragedy" had been averted. She congratulated the rescue services and all those who had helped in the rescue. She also paid tribute to the contestants who had shown "courage and skill" in dealing with a challenging situation. "The immense efforts of the medical services who provided such wonderful support in response to this rescue must also be recognised," she added.
Green Party TD Ciaran Cuffe said it was fortunate that the children had been wearing life jackets. Sudden weather conditions were "unpredictable and impossible to plan for". But "the fact that all children involved were wearing life jackets has played a major factor in their rescue".