Saturday 24 February 2018

Terror on high seas: How crew survived in water until rescue

The yacht Rambler off the west Cork coast after it capsized during the Fastnet race yesterday
The yacht Rambler off the west Cork coast after it capsized during the Fastnet race yesterday
Five of the crew were missing when the lifeboat arrived on scene while the remaining sixteen were huddled together on the upturned hull. Photo: PA
The Baltimore RNLI lifeboat crew taking part in a major rescue operation this evening when a 100 ft yacht capsized during the famous Fastnet race with a crew of 21 onboard. Photo: PA
The rescued crew members celebrate at the Baltimore sailing club last night.

Sarah Stack and Ed Carty

Five crew members thrown into the Atlantic from a stricken racing yacht which suddenly capsized stayed together in a swell by linking arms.

Twenty-one people on board were taken to shore in a dramatic rescue off the Co Cork coast after the US-registered boat, Rambler 100, flipped over as it competed at the head of the Fastnet Race.

Mick Harvey, the entry's project manager and a hardened sailor, said he would never forget the harrowing incident.

"It was a scary moment, one that I will never forget. I can't begin to tell you how relieved I am that all of the crew are safe," he said.

Skipper of the 100ft (30.5m) vessel George David and his partner Wendy Touton were two of the crew thrown into the Atlantic swell.

"Five of the crew were swept away by the waves out of reach of the stricken yacht... The group linked arms, forming a circle," Mr Harvey said.

The five, including a man in his 70s, were in the water for a number of hours before being picked up by a local dive boat, Wave Chieftain.

Ms Touton was airlifted to Kerry Hospital after suffering hypothermia and is said to be recovering.

The keel is believed to have broken, unbalancing the boat and forcing it to suddenly capsize, which the crew described as "turtling".

Mr Harvey revealed that some crew members had been asleep at the time and those who were below deck were very lucky to get out in time.

The Rambler 100 was leading the monohull fleet and vying for victory in the Rolex Fastnet Race when disaster struck 16 miles (26km) from Baltimore, Co Cork, just before 6pm yesterday.

Mr Harvey said: "Soon after rounding the Fastnet Rock, the wind went south-west, right on the nose. We were beating into big seas, launching Rambler off the top of full-size waves.

"I was down below with navigator Peter Isler when we heard the sickening sound of the keel breaking off. It was instantaneous - there was no time to react.

"The boat turned turtle, just like a dinghy capsizing. Peter Isler issued a mayday and we got out of there as quickly as we could."

The RNLI said 16 crew members were sitting on the hull of the boat when a lifeboat from Baltimore arrived at the scene about two hours later.

Bad fog had hampered efforts to locate the yacht, with visibility down to one mile (1.6km).

Kieron Cotter, coxswain of the volunteer crew, said: "We picked the 16 people off the hull and took them on board the lifeboat, with our dinghy going back and forth, and organised for other boats in the area to search for the missing five."

Gerry Smith, skipper of the Wave Chieftain, is to take George David and divers out to Fastnet this morning to check if passports and other personal items can be recovered. They will also decide whether the yacht can be towed to shore.

The crew were looked after by locals in Baltimore last night.

"The town of Baltimore has given us a wonderful welcome - I cannot thank our rescuers and the people of this lovely village enough," Mr Harvey said.

The alarm was raised when the yacht's emergency positioning indicator beacon was activated as it overturned five miles (8km) south-west of Fastnet lighthouse.

Mr Cotter, whose crew was on an exercise in the area, said the sea was not rough but visibility was down to one mile as they searched for the stricken yacht and crew.

"I've never seen anything like it before in 36 years with the RNLI. It was totally amazing. They told us five other yachts had passed within a mile and hadn't seen them," he said.

The Irish Coast Guard co-ordinated the major rescue operation, which involved Baltimore RNLI, the Shannon and Waterford-based rescue helicopters, and Irish Naval vessel the LE Ciara.

Some 314 yachts - including six Irish boats - are taking part in the Rolex Fastnet Race, having set sail from Cowes on the Isle of Wight on Sunday.

The Royal Ocean Racing Club's biennial event takes the fleet 608 miles (978.5km) along the south coast of the UK and across the Celtic Sea to the Fastnet Rock off south-west Ireland, before returning around the Scilly Isles to the finish in Plymouth.

The event has a fearsome reputation after the 1979 race which was devastated by strong winds and seas, resulting in 15 deaths.

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