Sunday 21 January 2018

Waking hours: Kieran Cotter of Baltimore RNLI

Coxswain Kieran Cotter
Coxswain Kieran Cotter

Ciara Dwyer

Kieran Cotter, 58, owns a convenience store and is also the coxswain with the Baltimore RNLI lifeboat. Born on Cape Clear Island, he has lived in Baltimore, West Cork, since 1970. He's married to Brigid and they have three children, Ciaran, 26, Cillian, 21, and Dearbhail, 19

I have a convenience store in the centre of the village, and I live over the shop. I'm married to Brigid and I have a grown-up family – it's just myself and Brigid at home.

I get up in the morning at 8.30am and open the shop for 8.45am. I turn on the oven and do some baking – I bake my own croissants and some rolls. I put out the papers and then customers start to come in. At 9.30am, I have a cup of tea and a croissant. In the mornings, I chat to the customers; it's all about knowing what happens and how people are.

At this time of the year, it's very quiet – maybe 150 customers a day. In the summer, it's very busy – 700 to 1,000 customers a day. There's a huge contrast. The village in wintertime is very quiet.

I bought the shop in 1977. When I left school, I joined the merchant navy as a cadet and spent a few years doing that. Then my father told me there was a shop for sale in the village.

I grew up on Cape Clear Island and, as a teenager, I used to fish during the summer – I was always involved in the water. I was home on leave around Christmas 1974 and I went down to the lifeboat station out of curiosity. My father was a crew member, and I joined up on January 1, 1975. I suppose, as a young person, there was a certain amount of excitement about it.

Around the time that I joined the lifeboat, a fisherman I knew was lost at sea. Also, when I was 12, I remember a knock came to the school door and two kids in the classroom were called out. It turned out that their brother had been lost at sea in a fishing-related accident.

Those events probably influenced me. In a village like this, young people tend to head towards the lifeboat. It's like why you join the GAA or a soccer club.

In 1989, I was appointed coxswain. The coxswain of the lifeboat is the person in charge – the skipper or the captain – and they're responsible for the safety of the crew and the boat, and the people we go out and rescue.

The lifeboat station in Baltimore has two boats. I'm the coxswain of the all-weather lifeboat, and there's also an inshore lifeboat. In total, we have a crew membership of 35. Twenty-five would be on the all-weather boat, and some on both. Every month, we go to sea and do a training session to keep ourselves familiarised with the boat.

If I get a call when I'm in my shop, I drop everything and proceed to the lifeboat. If I'm working alone, I close the door and put up a notice saying, "Gone on the lifeboat". I'd then proceed to the station, and the lifeboat would be launched. That would take between six and eight minutes – speed is of the essence. Then we'd put on our all-weather gear, hop on board and head out to the casualties.

We had a situation last May, where three young lads went out in a very small sailing dinghy and capsized. They had very little knowledge of the sea. Luckily, someone was walking along the beach, spotted them and called 999.

On a bigger scale, in August 2011, a yacht from the Rolex Fastnet Race capsized. We rescued 16 of the crew members. One of our crewmen, who was out in his own boat, rescued five of the members from the water.

It was the fastest high-tech yacht, with one of the most experienced crew in the world. It was a fresh day, 25 knots of wind – very good and very fast sailing conditions – but Rambler 100, this massive yacht, with a mast 140ft tall, capsized. The keel had cracked off.

These things happen, not very often, but they do. They are like the recent big storms – once or twice a lifetime.

Last year, we had a father-and-daughter situation over near Schull, where the father killed his three-year-old daughter and then drowned himself. We recovered the body of the father. Part of the lifeboat's work is body recovery, and suicides and accidents are part of that. Suicides are rare, rather than the usual.

I find dealing with the next-of-kin difficult because it is someone's son, daughter, wife or husband, and you have the situation where you have recovered a body.

People feel elated when they come off a rescue. Down through the years, both myself and the crew members would always be happy if we had succeeded in preventing the loss of life, or the loss of property. Even though she's called a lifeboat, lots of times, we will attempt to rescue the property, too. Say a vessel broke down at sea – we'd be able to tow it back to port.

It could be 2am when the beeper goes off. Then it's out of the bed and off you go. If you go back to the Charles Haughey rescue, I was just back from a wedding and I'd just got into bed when I got the call. Haughey's boat had some navigational problems and, as a result, it struck a rock and sank. We collected Haughey and his four crew members. We didn't recognise him at first.

Some days, I go back to work as soon as I get in after a rescue. It's normality for me because I've been doing it for 39 years. It's the same as going out to the pub and having a pint – you just do it.

The shop closes at 7pm at this time of the year. We sit down, watch TV, relax and maybe go to the pub for a drink before bed. I go to bed between 11.30pm and 1am. I sleep very easily. I'd mainly wake up in the middle of the night if I heard the wind roaring, but, in general, it doesn't have an adverse effect on me.

I don't have sleepless nights about going out to sea, or because it's going to be a bad night or bad the next day. It doesn't affect me. I get on with living.

That's the way with most of the lifeboat crew. A lot of them would have their jobs, whether it's the fella in the pub next door, or the fella up the road in the B&B, or the chap in the diving centre, or the fisherman.

Four or five of our crew are full-time merchant seamen. They'd be home a month and then away a month. It's just part of the fabric of your life.

In my time at the lifeboat, there have been two major tragedies. One was the trawler, St Gervase, which was lost with all crew in 2000. The fishermen lost were from Castletownbere. We were involved in the search. The other one was Tit Bonhomme, the trawler that was lost two years ago at Union Hall. There were five aboard and only one survived. Things like that have an adverse effect on you.

In the RNLI, we depend on voluntary contributions, and we have a great fund-raising committee in Baltimore.

Over the past four years, €7m has been spent on our station and our boat, and all of that has been contributed by people. We need to thank them because the better our boats and facilities are, the more capable we are of providing a good service. There's a direct connection.

In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

  • If you'd like to donate to the RNLI lifeboat in Baltimore, West Cork, see www.baltimorelifeboat.ie

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