Young sailors on lough speak of the moment when serious squall hit

John McPoland  from the Ambulance service at the Scene at Strangford Lough in Co Down,
John McPoland from the Ambulance service at the Scene at Strangford Lough in Co Down,

Two young sailors have recalled the dramatic moment when their tiny craft was caught up in the serious squall that led to a huge emergency response.

They had been among scores taking part in the GP14 World Championships on Strangford Lough when the stormy weather lashed their roughly 14ft-long sailing dinghies.

Emergency services at the Scene at Strangford Lough in Co Down,

Emergency services at the Scene at Strangford Lough in Co Down,

Tom Daniel, a 20-year-old third-year geography student from the north of England, had come over with Hollingworth Lake Sailing Club in Lancashire.

They had just been buffeted by winds during the first race of the day in the early afternoon, and got the order to head for land when the squall hit.

He said they capsized twice, and said the polished bottoms of the boats made it hard to get back in.

“We’d already started heading back when it really hit in. We were on our own which was more worrying, to be honest,” he said.

Rescue services pictured at the scene in Killyleagh.

Rescue services pictured at the scene in Killyleagh.

“The wind was really picking up with rain and hail and everything. The boat was pretty hard to control. We were worried about drifting onto the rocks.

“One boat never made it back. The people are obviously ok, but the boat’s been wrecked, basically.

“We managed to keep on and just managed to get back so it was ok – but it was worrying at times.”

With a huge raft of emergency services on the scene, along with much of the Province’s media, he said he nevertheless felt that the incident had been “blown out of proportion”.

A fellow sailor who was not so sure that it had was Jack Holden.

The 22-year-old fertiliser salesman from Southampton had been about two miles out at the time the stormy condition hit.

“It wasn’t so bad for us, but for some of the less capable sailors it was pretty horrific I should imagine.”

He added that as well as high winds and rain there was “no visibility”.

He guessed that about 30 boats had capsized altogether.

“Because a boat is a bit like a bathtub; when you capsize it’s a bit hard to get going again; it can just fill up.

“It definitely could have been dangerous.

“30 knots (around 35mph) in a boat that isn’t designed for it is quite hard going. We even ripped a sail in 15 knots yesterday, so it can be quite worrying after 30 knots.”

In fact, the club itself said that the winds had in fact reached up to 37 knots (around 43 mph – see club statement below).

Mr Holden initially said that the reaction to it “probably was overkill in the run of things”.

However, he went on to add: “I think when you have [that many] boats, with no visibility, maybe it wasn’t when you think about it.

“It was a hard one to call.”

The races yesterday involved mixed ages, with many of the competitors being in their 20s or teens.

Before being allowed into the club premises past a police line yesterday, a string of parents had waited anxiously to see if their children were alright.

One of them was Ruth Lee, 43, and from Cork, who was seeking news of her son Adrian and his sailing partner Edward Coyle; 17 and 16, respectively.

“On the radio I heard an emergency response team was going out,” she said.

“I’m too nervous. I need to know he’s alright.”

In the event, it appeared that any injuries arising from the emergency were minor ones.

The contest, which has drawn a number of international competitors to Co Down, began on Saturday and spans five days, with one rest day in between.

The boats involved are all GP14s – the name of a type of dinghy – and the contest sees two-man teams of sailors take to the lough and navigate between markers; ultimately, the championship is decided on points.