A wide range of emergency services swept into action yesterday after a string of boats were reported capsized in Strangford Lough due to stormy weather.
The Coastguard, RNLI, RAF and Irish Coastguard helicopter were quickly on the scene after unexpected squalls hit an international dinghy sailing competition.
A total of 88 two-man boats had been out on the lough when the incident unfolded.
Initially, the Coastguard said it was coordinating a rescue response after being contacted just before 2pm with reports that “some of the boats had capsized, while others were struggling to cope in the strong winds and squally showers”.
The Bangor and Portaferry Coastguard rescue teams, the Portaferry and Newcastle RNLI lifeboats, the Irish Coast Guard helicopter along with the helicopter from RAF Valley were all sent to the scene.
The South Eastern Trust, which runs the Ulster Hospital, said: “A major incident has been declared by the Trust and we have put our emergency plan into action.”
Reports of just how many boats had capsized, and how many sailors were involved, varied massively throughout the day, with one authority saying that 97 sailors had entered the water.
By 3.30pm, the Coastguard had issued a statement saying: “We have now been told by our rescue units on scene that everyone has safely returned to shore and that no one is missing. We believe 20 people ended up in the water after their boats capsized this afternoon, 10 of them requiring medical attention.
“The weather conditions on scene have been pretty treacherous, with winds gusting up to 60mph. We’re very thankful that everyone has now safely returned.”
Ten patients were treated for hypothermia, and two sailors were taken to the Ulster Hospital.
DUP Down councillor William Walker was among many praising “a magnificent response by the emergency services”, adding “there are only a few minor injuries” and that “everyone is safely out of the water”.
When the News Letter visited the scene, some suggested that the extent of emergency services’ resources which were deployed was unneccessary.
The sailors – who were of mixed ages – were taking part in the Exe Sails GP14 2014 World Championship, which is taking place at East Down Yacht Club.
A statement from the East Down Yacht Club said they had kept the situation under control but opted to call in the emergency services as a precaution.
The statement was delivered by the clubhouse yesterday by Jay Colville, club spokesman, who afterwards responded to claims that the response – which had involved helicopters, the coastguard, and a string of ground vehicles – had been over-the-top.
The statement began by saying that 88 boats in total had been “tallied out” – a safety system to ensure the club knows which boats are on the water, and who is sailing in them.
It continued: “Towards the finish of the first race the race officer decided that due to worsening weather conditions the second race of the day would be cancelled.
“The signal for the race cancellation was displayed, and the safety boat crews were informed that racing for the day was finished.
“The fleet started to head to shore when a squall of 31 knots (about 36 mph) passed over the race area.
“The effect of this was some of the GP14s capsized.
“This is not an unusual situation – the crews are trained on how to right their boats.
“Unfortunately a further, stronger squall registered 37 knots (about 43mph) following the first, capsizing a further number of the fleet.
“Apparent media reports of 80 boats capsized would be incorrect, as there would not have been more than 10 to 12 boats capsized at any one time.
“The capsizes were being successfully handled by the competitors, and the team of 13 safety boats that had been accompanying the racing fleet.
“The race officer then made the correct decision, as a precaution, to contact the Coastguard, should weather conditions worsen.
“And in fact the weather conditions improved after 15 minutes.
“As regards injuries, apart from two competitors, with suspected broken limbs, no-one in the event was seriously injured other than minor scratches, cuts and bruises consistent with the sport at this level.”
Asked if there had ever been any truly serious danger, Mr Colville said: “I was in the water, I was out there and I saw the 10 or 12 capsized and we were handling it well.”
However, he added: “Our race officer called it in as a precaution, and I think that was the right thing to do.”
He said that the competition will continue for the rest of the week.
The Coastguard was the lead agency in charge of the emergency response.
A spokeswoman for the Coastguard’s Southampton-based headquarters said it did not want to comment on the view that the scale of the emergency response was an overreaction, except to say: “If people are in need of assistance, we respond, and we received calls to say people needed assistance.