The boat’s engine had failed, causing it to drift onto nearby rocks where it quickly became punctured. Three fishermen were left stranded in the sunken boat, forced to sit in the cold water that flooded in around them.
The fishermen had contacted the Irish Coast Guard who in turn requested the support of the Irish Red Cross Corrib Mask Search and Rescue unit. However, the hazardous weather conditions and rough waters meant the Irish Red Cross lifeboat delayed deployment so Valentia Coast Guard tasked a rescue helicopter, ambulance and fire brigade to the scene instead. Faced with extreme gale-force winds, however, the helicopter was unable to execute a rescue and the Coast Guard reverted back to the Irish Red Cross for assistance. This left skipper and Area Director of Units for the Connemara Area Niall O’ Meachair with the difficult decision about whether to launch a rescue boat, despite a “small craft warning” being in place. Niall decided to proceed and briefed the rescue team. With the victims exposed to freezing conditions, time was of the essence. Drowning wasn’t the skipper’s biggest concern – it was hypothermia, particularly given there was an older man on the boat.
“Having established communication with the boat, my concern was the age of this person,” explains Niall. “He was complaining of cold and he said he felt he was getting hypothermic. That worried me because when you get into the cycle with hypothermia, it’s hard to get out of it. You curl up, become emotional, feel sorry for yourself, and let go. Your body then reacts by pulling all the blood from your extremities to maintain the core temperature and your peripherals start going blue. Then you’re into low oxygen levels and the associated medical implications.”
Niall was able to keep in contact with the rescue team thanks to the TETRA radios which were provided by the Irish Red Cross. Without these special radios the operational area is considered a communication “black spot” because there is no very high frequency (VHF) communications in that particular area. “The TETRA radio proved absolutely invaluable,” explains Niall. “It allowed me to maintain contact with the rescue boat as it made its way to the stricken craft and also allowed Valentia Coast Guard radio to monitor the progress of the rescue. It’s just a fabulous piece of equipment. Since its introduction it has become the preferred method of communication within the Unit.”
Niall had also requested assistance from other Clonbur Branch volunteers (the Corrib Mask Search and Rescue Unit is part of this branch) and when the victims were recovered and brought to Cor na Móna pier, the Clonbur branch volunteers were waiting for them, with their fully-equipped ambulances to hand. The volunteers had also brought the Search and Rescue Unit’s D-Class boat as back up. Crews from the National Ambulance Service also arrived at the pier, prepared with towels and blankets.
Corrib Mask Search and Rescue provided insulated “woolly bears” for the rescued men, before they were taken to University Hospital Galway for medical observation. “Woolly bears are an undergarment that are worn underneath the dry-suit,” says Niall. “It’s a full bodysuit that goes from your toes right up to your neck and it helps the victims to recover and maintain a stable body temperature. We dry the victim out completely and get them into the woolly bear straight away. These suits are a vital safeguarding tool, particularly for treating individuals at risk of hypothermia.”
Niall is very proud of this particular rescue, noting “we are a very experienced unit and I know we saved lives that day.” He commended the rescue as a “brilliant example of interagency teamwork,” thanking everyone who helped secure and treat the victims; Costelloe Bay and Cleggan units of the Irish Coast Guard, Shannon Helicopter, Ballinrobe Fire Unit and the NAS/HSE. Lydons Lodge of Cong kindly fed the crew afterwards.
In 2019, the Irish Red Cross conferred a Medal of Merit on the Corrib Mask Search and Rescue unit in recognition of this particular success. Unit members involved in this rescue were; Niall O’Meachair, Alan Daly, Maeve McAleenan, Aidan McAleenan, Robert Wilkes, Pat Egan, Shane Rogan, Noel Collins and Michael Gibbons.
The Corrib Mask Search and Rescue unit deservedly won the Irish Red Cross Branch of the Year 2017 for its remarkable work responding to distress calls in the local area.
The unit continues to provide a 24/7 rescue service, as tasked by the Irish Coast Guard and emergency services. At the time of writing, the unit had just concluded a three-week search for a missing fisherman on Lough Mask, Co. Mayo. The body of the missing angler was recovered on Saturday 30 March 2019.