Gorey Guardian

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45th anniversary of trio's paddle across Irish Sea

The 45th anniversary of an epic voyage across the Irish Sea is to be marked later this month when two Courtown men travel to Fishguard for celebrations of the memorable event.

Peter Donegan, Peter Sinnott and the late Seamus Organ were hailed as local heroes when they returned to Courtown from their gruelling 24 hour paddle across the Irish Sea. Their attempt sparked a major air and sea search of both sides of the Irish Sea, as they had left without telling their families. They ended up being arrested and appeared on the BBC six o'clock news in Britain, before being given the freedom of Fishguard.

The Courtown men were the first people to cross the channel in a two-man canoe in recorded history. It has been attempted since, but never completed.

Peter Donegan's memory of that week is very clear, even 45 years later. 'We were in the Marine Bar, which was run by Fiach O'Byrne at the time,' he recalled. 'We had heard of a chap from Enniscorthy who had tried to go across twice but failed. Fiach said the Irish Sea would never be conquered by canoe, so we said we'd conquer it'.

'We left Ardamine beach on August 16 1960 at 11 p.m. and arrived there at 11 p.m. on August 17,' he continued. 'The journey was about 85 to 90 miles long, as we went up to the Blackwater Bank before crossing over'.

Seamus was 21, Peter Donegan was 19, and Peter Sinnott was 18. They worked as seamen on the Irish Ash cargo ship at the time, and were home on holidays. They borrowed a 16ft two man canoe, which meant one of them had to sit on the canoe, getting wet, so they changed over every hour.

They brought with them some water, biscuits, a bottle of Lucozade, a radio and a compass. However shortly after they started, the wake of a passing boat swamped the canoe, soaking the radio, cutting off all contact with land, and leaving them without a weather forecast.

'Planes, lifeboats, and the coastguard had been out looking for us,' said Peter. 'We had gone without the permission of our parents. We told our friend Ger Bolger not to tell them until ten o'clock the next morning, and he got into some trouble when he did'.

'There was consternation across the coastline. Our aunt in Birkenhead was even out looking for us'.

'We had gone too far by then to be found,' he added. 'We lost sight of land for a long time, and that was hard, but we never lost hope.

'It was very calm, but the weather changed while we were out. However, we got in before the weather turned bad,' he explained.

'Once we saw land, we kept going,' he added. 'It was pure luck we got there. The sea has never been as calm since'.

'We landed at a lighthouse at Strumble Head in Wales, and climbed up the cliffs and saw a light at a house in the fields. It was the Coastguard House. He had been looking for us, and when we went in the back door, he got a bit of a land.'

'We were exhausted,' he said. 'We had entered the country illegally, so we were arrested by the police and visited by Customs, but they looked after us very well'.

'We were told we landed in a place which was last invaded by the French. The next morning the papers and TV cameras came down, and we were on the six o'clock news'.

'We then got the freedom of Fishguard by the Lord Mayor, and we were taken round the town,' he added. They were then deported on the Rosslare Mailboat, and seeing their parents waiting on the quayfront, they asked the skipper to lower the canoe into the sea in a fishing net, and they paddled up the coast from Rosslare. 'This was a harder trip as it was choppy', recalled Peter.

'When we arrived in Courtown, Gorey Pipe Band was there, and the pier was black with thousands of people,' he said. 'When we got home everything was alright with our parents, but we never tried anything like it since'.

Neither Peter Donegan or Peter Sinnott recommend anyone else try repeat what they did. 'Most definitely not,' says Peter Sinnott. 'It should not be attempted except under strict supervision of other boats. No-one would do it except mad dogs and a few Courtown men'.

Peter Sinnott later recognised the error of his ways and went on to head up Courtown Coastguard. His son Mark now serves on the Coastguard, as does Peter Donegan's son Peter.

Seamus Organ died tragically in 1997 in a road accident.