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'Anything that could fly or float was out there last night': The story behind the rescue of Galway paddle boarders

A Galway RNLI crew member recounts the operation that saved two women’s lives this morning.

One of the rescued women on her way to receiving treatment at hospital.
One of the rescued women on her way to receiving treatment at hospital.
Image: Declan Colohan

THE SUCCESSFUL OPERATION to rescue a woman and teenager who spent 15 hours swept away at sea was achieved through cooperation between at least eight different agencies.

The woman, Sara Feeney, and teenager Ellen Glynn, aged 23 and 17, were found off Inis Oirr this morning after a search and rescue operation launched by the Irish Coast Guard last night.

The pair, who are cousins, went paddle boarding last night from Furbo Beach at around 9pm.

They were swept away from the coast by a sudden north wind and blown out to sea.

The Irish Coast Guard launched a search and rescue operation after Sara Feeney’s mother raised the alarm.

The operation continued throughout the night and attracted the aid of multiple coastal agencies.

A group mission

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Declan Killilea, a volunteer helmsman with Galway RNLI, said that his pager first went off last night at around 10.10pm.

Shortly after the first Galway RNLI lifeboat was launched, it was joined by the Aran Island RNLI all-weather lifeboat and the Irish Coast Guard Rescue helicopter 115 from Shannon.

An additional two Coast Guard Rescue helicopters from Sligo and Waterford joined the operation this morning, with Coast Guard lifeboats from Oranmore/Maree, Cashla Bay, and Doolin.

The Civil Defence embarked on a search along the north shore, which was coordinated by gardaí.

Galway Flying Club and Aer Arann also joined the operation.

“Pretty much every agency that could be paged or anything that could fly or float was out last night, basically, which was brilliant,” Killilea said.

“There was a huge, huge amount of people out there.”

When he arrived at the station, Killilea was on the team which helped launch the first boat, and assisted in work on the shore.

“When the boat’s at sea, you’ve also to be in the station here, monitoring radio and trying to gather information to feed to the boat,” he said.

“It’s happening at shore and at sea.”

The crew on the Galway RNLI lifeboat changed three times throughout the night.

“As the night went on, it became apparent that we were going to need to refuel the boat and change out crews because it was quite exposed, so the crew would be getting tired over time,” Killilea said.

“At 2.30am, we drove out to Barna – one of the other crew drove out myself and another guy.”

The team brought food with them for crew members from the initial launch who were remaining out at sea to continue in the search.

“We swapped out crew, refuelled, and went back out,” Killilea said.

Searching through the night

While at sea, the Galway RNLI and Aran Island RNLI boats worked as a team to search the area.

“Basically, the two boats were parallel, going north and south.”

The crews had a sense of where the lost paddle boarders may have drifted, taking the drift and the prevailing wind conditions into consideration.

“The search was up and down the bay, down as far as a couple of miles south of Blackhead and off the Clare coast and out to sea, to the west.”

The crew on the boat had four members; one driving, and three searching with torches.

The weather conditions shifted throughout the night, ranging from calm to heavy rain and lightning.

Killilea and his crew mates stayed at sea until around 7am this morning, when they returned for another crew change and refuel.

A successful search

The women were discovered by Patrick Oliver, a former Galway RNLI lifeboat crew member and current shore crew member and fisherman, and his son Morgan this morning.

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Oliver discovered the women on their boards two miles southwest of Inis Oirr, where they were holding on to a lobster pot.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Liveline this afternoon, Oliver said that the women were “very shook, but thankful” when he found them.

“I’d say they hung on together throughout the night, which would be the best thing to do, so they didn’t separate,” Oliver said.

“They were good, they were waving their paddles in the air, they had us spotted and they were waving.”

“We came alongside then, they are weak and tired, of course, but they were sitting up and there was a bit of chat out of them,” he said.

A welcome victory

After Killilea’s boat returned this morning, Killilea – one of the many volunteers who make up the RNLI – went home, had a shower, and went to work.

When he found out the women had been rescued, he was “delighted”.

“It was just brilliant. There’s so much bad news at the moment, this is a huge boost,” Killilea said.

Speaking on Drivetime this afternoon, Sara Feeney’s mother, Helen, said she was “very grateful” to the teams on the search and rescue operation.

“We’ve heard all about Patrick, the hero, and we’re obviously going to be forever indebted to him.”

“It’s a miracle,” she said.

The two women are understood to be well and receiving treatment in hospital. 

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