SURVIVORS of a yacht which capsized off the West Cork coast in raging seas have spoken of their narrow escape from death.
Crew members revealed how 16 of them had desperately clung to the upturned hull of their yacht -- and watched helplessly as five of their crewmates drifted away in a life raft.
Two of the 21 rescued crew from the yacht, Rambler, said no-one could believe how fast the boat got into trouble and overturned.
Bob Wylie (48), speaking in Baltimore, Co Cork, just minutes after his ordeal, said: "We're all so relieved -- we can't believe it really."
Bob -- from Lac Quarrie outside Sydney, Australia -- said that seconds after the yacht capsized he battled to climb up onto the rear of the hull where he remained perched for two hours before being rescued.
"My first priority was to get myself safe and the second priority was to try to help the others," he said.
"I saw them [the five in the life raft] drifting away from the yacht. I threw them a rope but it couldn't reach them. I was very worried for them," he added.
Michael Van Beuren (44) from Rhode Island in the US said he was "hugely relieved" when he heard that all 21 crew had been rescued safe.
"The water wasn't bone-chilling cold. But I began to get worried as time went on and we all began to get a lot colder," he said.
"When I saw them [the five] get separated and then we could see them drifting away, I got very worried. I was concerned that they might not survive. It is such a relief that we all made it ashore," he added.
The US-registered 100ft Rambler capsized at 6.30pm prompting one of the biggest air-sea rescue operations in modern times by the Irish Coastguard.
The vessel, which was taking part in the Fastnet Race, overturned suddenly not far from the Fastnet Lighthouse and Cape Clear island about 20 miles from Baltimore with 16 of the crew managing to cling onto the upturned hull.
Five others found themselves thrown into stormy seas drifting for a gruelling two and a half hours but were eventually able to get into a life raft.
Irish Coastguard helicopters based at Shannon and Waterford, two lifeboats from Baltimore and Castletownbere, and a Naval Service vessel the Le Ciara raced to the scene in a bid to save the stricken yachtsmen amid 15 foot waves.
They were alerted by a satellite distress signal which went up from Rambler after it capsized. There was no 'mayday' signal as the boat capsized so quickly.
Rescue officials air-lifted the stricken yachtsmen from the sea and took them to Bantry General Hospital and Cork University Hospital for treatment.
One injured female crew member had to be airlifted to Tralee General Hospital when fog at Cork Airport prevented aircraft from landing for a time.
Her condition was described as critical. Doctors were also on standby in Schull and Baltimore in a bid to aid those taken ashore by lifeboats.
One local indicated that it is suspected the vessel capsized when its keel may have been damaged by the stormy conditions. It is also believed the boat's canting keel may have malfunctioned.
The Fastnet race ranks as one of the world's most famous sea events but was marred by tragedy in 1979 when a sudden storm caused havoc in the fleet.
A total of 25 of the 300 yachts taking part that year were sunk or disabled by Storm Force 7 winds. Fifteen people lost their lives and a special Fastnet tragedy memorial was later erected on Cape Clear Island.
The Rambler is owned by a 65-year-old American businessman called George David.
It is the first time Rambler competed in the Fastnet Race and was tipped to win in its category. Rambler recently completed a Trans-Atlantic race and is known as one of the fastest monohulls in the world.
It was competing directly with a UK boat called Icap Leopard which had rounded the rock ahead earlier yesterday.
The Naval patrol ship LE Ciara brought a number of the crew ashore last night.
It is understood the search operation was hampered by misty and rainy conditions with visibility down to less than a mile.