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This article was front page news in Ireland's Donegal on Sunday Newspaper.Donegal Front Page of Newspaper

Originally published on 10 July 2005, read the full and complete story of that stormy night.



By Nora Flanagan

What started out as a typical day for the Arranmore Lifeboat at 15.00hours ended in a rescue that will go down in the annals of present day Lifeboat History. Little did the crew of the Lifeboat think that within the next six hours they would be on a rescue mission that would equal rescues of days gone by when the Arranmore Lifeboat had to cover distances of over one hundred nautical miles, literally from Portrush to Achill Island with top speeds of 10 knots per hour. Older Lifeboat crew members will tell about rescue missions that involved the crew going out and spending at least a week on board while they were searching for the casualty, but with the advantage of new high speed Lifeboats, modern technology, highly trained Lifeboat crews and more Lifeboat Stations those stories are a thing of the pastRNLI Lifeboat anchored in Bay and long call out rescue missions part of the archives, but not so for the crew of the Arranmore Lifeboat on the 2nd of July 2005. Just when they thought all sea faring people were tucked up in their beds they responded to a mayday call from Malin Head Coastguard at 23.00hrs that there was a yacht in difficulty 40 miles northwest off Tory Island.

Lone yachtsman Keith White, the father of seven children from London set sail from Gillingham Marina 8th of June in his 13 meter yacht The Nephele with a picture of Admiral Nelson painted on the sail. His goal was to celebrate the Battle of Trafalgar by sailing round the coast of Britain and Ireland to raise funds for charity. What is remarkable about Keith is that he has the use of only one arm, the result of having sustained injuries in a road traffic accident in 1990. From the beginning of the journey all did not go well with Keith, as he ran into gale force winds which forced him to tack to Norway and then back down to Scotland where his auto pilot packed in, forcing him to make the return journey to Peterhead, a distance of 70 miles. He also sustained three broken ribs in one of the many gales he encountered.

As he headed across the north coast of Ireland the weather improved but this had the effect of him being in the doldrums for the whole of Friday the 1st July. On Saturday morning during his routine radio call to the coastguard he was informed that there was a force 9 gale forecast for that evening and that he had a choice of weathering the storm or trying to make for land, as his position was 60 miles north of Malin Head the safety of land was at least an 8 hour haul away so he decided to batten the hatches and weather the storm. The gale was however not the force 9 he expected but force 10 and very soon he was in trouble, the strops on the jib broke and he lost radio contact with Malin Head Coastguard Station. As the storm increased in force his yacht suddenly capsized leaving him with the only option of sending out a mayday. Luckily, this was picked up by RNLI towa passing ship whose crew in turn relayed the mayday to Malin Head. At this stage Malin Head called out the rescue helicopter from Sligo and as the yacht was over 20 miles from land the Coastguard felt it a necessary safety precaution to deploy an RAF Nimrod from Kinloss in Scotland. The Arranmore Lifeboat was also alerted and they left base at 23.00 hours.

The projected coordinates for the yacht, taking wind, tides and sailing conditions into consideration was relayed to the Lifeboat and they proceeded to the area in search of Keith. Due to the damaged mast Keith was unable to steer the boat effectively and was going around in a half circle although he didn't realize it at the time. Both helicopters made contact with Keith at the same time and offered to air lift him to hospital as he had suspected fractures of the ribs. He declined the offer as he felt it was too dangerous for both the helicopter crew and himself to attempt the lift as the jib was flapping about and the ropes and other material aboard the yacht had come undone. He also had confidence in the boat and had carried out all safety precautions prior to sailing. The helicopters then departed the scene.

Talking to Keith he says this was the longest night he experienced, as it was pitch black. He tried to get some sleep whenever he could and on waking about four o clock in the morning he saw what he thought was the sun coming up and felt great relief. The "sun" kept coming towards him and he finally realized that it was the Lifeboat. In Keith's own words he "felt a great sense of comfort that he was no longer alone". Having made radio contact with the Lifeboat he proceeded to the main deck where he harnessed himself to the rails.

Weather conditions at the time were very bad with 10-11 meter waves and force 10 gales. The crew of the Lifeboat decided that it was too dangerous and nigh impossible to get near the yacht as it was still dark and there was a big lift to starboard rendering any action even more treacherous, so they stood by until daylight. As day was dawning they decided to attach a towrope to the Nephele and proceeded to make Keith with some members of the Life Boat crewcommunication with Keith to this effect. Keith managed to catch the towrope and in trying to secure it the rope wrapped around his foot and the jib. This fluke saved his life as the boat once more capsized and he was thrown overboard and with the ropes and harness still attached he managed to clamber back on board.

Speaking to the crew I asked them what their feelings were when they saw the boat capsizing and they said they thought he was a "goner" and couldn't believe their eyes when they saw him getting back on board. In the understated way of all Lifeboat men Jimmy Early, 3rd coxswain said, "He did well"

Having secured the towrope the Lifeboat then proceeded to tow the Nephele the 40 miles to Burtonport. Because of the weather conditions and Keith's injuries the Lifeboat was only able to do 5-6 knots. The crew kept in radio contact with the Nephele every half an hour to establish that Keith was bearing up and when they were approximately 20 miles from Tory Island they noticed Keith was getting a little confused and suspected hypothermia. Unfortunately as weather conditions were still atrocious there was nothing they could do but keep talking to him until they considered it safe to launch the Y boat.

The Y boat was launched 2 miles from Tory Island with Coxswain Anthon Kavanagh and 2nd Mechanic Martin Gallagher on board in order to bring hot food to the casualty and assess his condition. Keith said it was the best food he ever tasted. Martin stayed on board the Nephele until calmer waters rendered it safe to transfer Keith, via the Y boat, to the Lifeboat where the crew administered fist aid. They then proceeded to Burtonport with the Nephele still in tow and Keith on board.

The Lifeboat arrived in Burtonport at 19.15 hrs and Keith was transferred to a waiting ambulance Keith's yacht Nephele on towand taken to Letterkenny Hospital. The Lifeboat then refueled and returned to base at 20.15 hrs. The crew was tired but delighted with the result of the mission after 21 hours continuous service.

X rays confirmed that Keith indeed had sustained two fractured ribs and after treatment was discharged from hospital on Monday into the care of his back up crew who had flown in from London to help him carry out repairs to his boat. He intends to continue his journey and hopes to be back in Gillingham Marina in approximately 2 weeks.

On Tuesday 5 July, at the invitation of press officer Nora Flanagan, Keith came into Arranmore to meet with the crew in the Lifeboat Station under less fearful conditions. Upon listening to accounts of the rescue from both rescuers and rescued I quickly appreciated what an incredible experience it must have been. In the usual understated manner of Lifeboat crewmembers in general the crew's main concerns only transpired during a relaxed conversation in the boathouse over a cup of coffee. The crew feared that Keith's condition would deteriorate to the point where the major decision would have to be made to transfer a crewmember to the Nephele. Thankfully this action did not have to be taken until much later in the rescue when it was safe to launch the Y boat.

Another concern of the crew was that that towrope would break but as the rope had accidentally wrapped itself around the jib this proved a blessing in disguise as it took the strain off the rope. Anthon Kavanagh said "It was one of the most difficult rescues I experienced and I'm delighted that it turned out so well for both the casualty and the crew." Well, that's what he meant but what he actually said was "It was a tough one"!

Speaking by phone to Keith's wife from London she expressed her sincerest gratitude to all the crew involved in the rescue. "The whole family is indebted to the RNLI and especially the Arranmore Lifeboat, not only for helping Keith but for the hospitality extended to him and his shore crew.

On Monday 11th July Keith set out from Burtonport to resume his journey. Speaking to him as he lost sight of the Arranmore Lighthouse he said he had a few butterflies as he left his shore crew but was anxious to set sail and get back to his family in London. He again expressed his gratitude to the Lifeboat crew for their dedication and determination to saving his live and hopes to return to the area with his family in the near future.

All involved in the Arranmore Lifeboat wish Keith the best of luck.


Nora Flanagan  ©  2005 reproduced with kind permission   All rights reserved


Epilogue

On 1st October 2008, the Irish Coast Guard gave an award to members of the Arranmore RNLI Lifeboat crew for their bravery.

Minister of State Noel Ahern presented the award in Dublin Castle on The 1st October on behalf of the Irish Coast Guard Service. You can read about their award here