RNLI bravery on high seas
As they prepare for their annual seafood night in Strandhill, crew members past and present talk to Sorcha Crowley about facing danger at sea
It was the drowning man's hands that Dermot Gillen remembers so clearly.
The RNLI shore crew man wasn't even meant to be out in the rescue boat that day but they were short a man when the call came through last March.
When duty calls, you oblige.
"He was going down. It was just the two wrists sticking out of the water and the hands up," recalls Dermot.
He grabbed the man out of the water at Deadman's Point and another crew member, Micheal, who was a nurse started working on him. He was very hypothermic, but survived.
Even in the summer here the water is very cold. Your survival time isn't great. Hypothermia can start setting in after ten minutes.
"He was going. He was the closest one I was on, ever," Dermot says, shaking his head at the memory.
The Rosses Point native has been with the RNLI at the village's Lifeboat Station since its inception in 1998.
He has seen more life and death situations in those years than most of us will see in our entire life time.
People in difficulty relax when they think help is coming and "then they just go under."
"Until somebody has a hold of you don't stop fighting. Keep swimming," he says.
One of his toughest rescues was recovering a four year old boy from the Garavogue river back in 2002. "That was really tough," he recalls.
The crew have a good system to cope with distressing rescues. The RNLI provides counselling but the camaraderie of the crew also provides huge support. "The crew go back, chat and soldier on," says Dermot.
This year has been the busiest year for the Sligo RNLI with 42 'shouts' - what they call an emergency call out - so far this year. They normally average 20 shouts a year.
"Some of that was associated with the searches for Rescue 116 because we were called out to search many times for that but even apart from that we had 12 call outs in July alone," says Operations Manager at the station Willie Murphy.
"More people are taking to the water. The awareness of safety at sea has risen. People are calling us more than they used to. You need never worry in terms of calling us and making a mistake, we're delighted," he says.
Past crew member Paul McGonigle agrees: "Call us straight away. If you see something that doesn't look right, make the call. We've come back to the station more times saying 'if only we got called ten or twenty minutes earlier'. It can make a difference," he says.
Their core numbers are 48 on the Operations side, 30 of whom go to sea.
Would they ever be fearful for their lives heading out into rough seas on a stormy winter's night?
"Definitely you have to have a certain bit of fear, because if you go out there gung-ho you're going to get somebody hurt, or yourself hurt," says Dermot.
"I wouldn't like to go out with people like that. There's definitely a respect we have for the sea," he says.
"If you've no fear, you've no respect," adds Paul.
Once a decision is made to launch the lifeboat, pagers on the crews on call go off and people come running into the station.
Whoever is first there jumps into their warm thermal suit, then their all-in-one yellow and black 'dry' suit with wellies attached, life jacket and helmet.
After a 'brief' briefing, the four crew members jump into the boat which is launched into the sea by a tractor. Their target time for launching is ten minutes. They usually do it in seven.
Roles in the boat vary and rotate - driving the boat, on communications with the Coastguard, on radar or watch-keeping on the fourth seat.
They cover an area of 25 nautical miles, from north of Inishmurray across to Lenadoon Point off Easkey.
There is a familial atmosphere around the station. Many couples volunteer together, such as Yvette and Owen Carter. Their 8-month-old daughter Aoife plays on the floor as we chat in their common room.
"When I lived in the village a lot of friends I had were on the crew so I just got edged in to it. My husband, a sister-in-law and a few good friends are all involved - I didn't really have a choice but to join!" she laughs.
Yvette was on crew until Aoife arrived and is now the station's Training Co-ordinator. Training sessions take place twice a week to keep the crews sharp.
Like Dermot, she found the recovery operations tough: "Some of the searches can be daunting because you don't know what you're in for but we're trained for all outcomes. You take what you get."
You don't have to have grown up in the village to be a crew member but seeing the activity of the RNLI on a regular basis inspires many to join.
David Bradley is one such man - he only joined three years ago with no experience of the sea apart from "a bit of fishing and kayaking" and is now a fully trained helmsman.
"I didn't come with any bad habits. I was able to learn by the book and go by the book then," he says.
Is he an adrenaline junkie? "No but it certainly does raise your adrenaline levels," he smiles.
"There's great satisfaction in rescuing someone. It's great when you come back because it can be very stressful, the rescues can be drawn out and very dynamic and changeable but it's great when you come back and the lads have soup or sandwiches there for you."
It costs between ¤150,000 - ¤200,000 to run the station each year but Sligo raises "far more than that" according to Treasurer David Godsell.
"We punch well above our weight in terms of collecting funds. The funds go into a central fund for the RNLI but all funds raised in this area are earmarked for this area," he tells The Sligo Champion.
"The last few years have been tough enough because of the downturn, people are struggling," he says. A lot of the money is raised through the souvenir shop at the station run by the Fundraising Committee and through wills and legacies.
They get memorial donations, one in particular sends them at least ¤4,000 a year.
And then there's the generosity of children: "I had a young child this morning give me ¤10," says David. "One of the factors this year I personally think has been the tragedy in Mayo (of Rescue 116). That has raised awareness and fundraising this year," he adds.
One of their biggest events on their social calendar takes place this Friday 10th November in The Strand Bar, Strandhill, their annual Seafood Night.
Organised by the crew, it's "very much an awareness night that the RNLI are here" says Paul McGonigle. The very best of seafood is served up on a platter, all locally sourced and donated through local restaurants. Crab claws, mussels, oysters, all from the waters off Sligo.
The Strand owners the Byrne family provide live entertainment and a raffle is held as well. "All credit to them, they're more than willing to go the extra mile and give a donation on top of that as well," says Paul.
Willie is giving me a tour of the station as a call comes in. A woman has been seen standing waist high in the water fully clothed off the Second Beach at Rosses Point. Nobody saw her leave the water.
David Bradley's pager suddenly starts bleeping and he literally jumps into action. He runs downstairs and starts pulling on his gear.
A woman run around the corner into the changing rooms. Third and fourth men appear also. Willie remains the epitome of calm as he communicates.
The rescue helicopter is already on the way to the scene and is heard overhead.
Within minutes the crew are in the boat. David's wife Linda on the tractor launches them into the sea and they're off.
Twenty minutes later they return in darkness. The woman has been located and is safely ashore. "The darkness was a risk factor but it's great she's safe," says David.