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A member of a lifeboat crew out at sea Nigel Millard/RNLI

Column ‘You’d often know the people you’d be going out for’

From receiving an alert, Joefy Murphy and his crew can launch a lifeboat in eight minutes. He explains why the danger and the lack of sleep haven’t stopped him yet.

I WENT INTO the lifeboats in 1969, so I’m a long time there now, a lifetime. Myself and a group of friends signed up that year. We were always into fishing; even when we were at school we’d be fishing in the holidays. So the sea was in our blood.

A typical call-out could be anything. It could be injuries, it could be engine failure, it could be bad weather and you’d have to tow them ashore. It could be nets around the propeller. In the summertime you’d get yachts that might get into difficulty – it could be a single person or a couple and they’d get tired or seasick or something. There’s never two calls the same.

We would be given the alert through the Irish Coast Guard. All the crew live locally, but some work maybe a few miles away. We’re all on 24-hour pagers, and from the time the pager would go, we usually have about a seven to eight minute response time.

When the fishing industry was booming here, and there was a lot of fish factories around the harbour, the local employers never minded – if a pager went off, then the crews could leave and go. But that’s changed now. Employers in recent years don’t have the same understanding of what the lifeboat service is about.

It’s tough at first, but you get used to it. It’s a voluntary job – you don’t do it for the money or for the honour, you do it for a service that you love and that you’re proud of. You do it in the hope that you’ll help others. If you were going to think about it as a laborious job, you wouldn’t do it. Because you could be out all night on a shout and come home and have to go to work.

I was 26 years fishing, skipper on my own trawler. And you’d often know the people you’d be going out for. When a tragedy strikes it does make it all the more difficult, when it could be somebody you know very well. I’m 40-odd years in the lifeboats now, and I wouldn’t say I’ve hardened to it, but I’ve seen that you just have to get on with the job.

‘Suddenly he was gone in a flash’

I remember when I was 17, we went out to a trawler that the wheelhouse had washed off. And I remember there was a lad washed out of the wheelhouse, a couple of years older than me. I’d been talking to him a couple of days earlier on the quay, and he was telling me he got married, and about his new wife, and how he was so happy. And suddenly he was gone in a flash. I remember that was gnawing at me, thinking ‘What if we’d stayed longer, we might have got him.’ But it was never going to be another way.

It’s worrying for our families. It’s easier nowadays, now that there’s more communication, but it’s still worrying. When you’re going out in very bad weather and bringing a crew with you – it’s one of the things that as a coxswain I’m always conscious of. You think of the younger members of the crew, especially ones who might be just married or with young families. You think of them, it’s on your mind.

It’s the calls that don’t get the big recognition that you think back on. We were called out last winter, about 11 o’clock at night. This Polish girl had arrived down to the sailing club and she met one of the guys on the crew. She said her fiancé had come down here earlier in the day with his friend to go out on a jet ski that they’d just bought; and she kept ringing his phone and it wasn’t answering. It was ringing in a Jeep on the harbour.

So we launched; there was thick, thick fog, too thick for the helicopter to help us – he couldn’t get in over the cliffs. We searched the whole harbour area; we searched and searched for about three hours. The Coast Guard said stand down if you wish, but I said ‘We’re going out again, I’m going to give it one more go.’ The fog was that thick, we were in to about 50 metres from the shore, and we could see the surf breaking at the base of the cliff but nothing else.

So we went in a bit closer, and I said ‘Hold on, I hear something.’ And we took the two Poles off a rock where they’d been sitting for 13 hours.

They’d flipped off the jet ski, the two of them swam in to the rock, and there they stayed. They had no idea where they were; the fog got thick; the tide came and went twice. The rock was no bigger than your average kitchen table. That was a good one; it was very, very lucky.

Joefy Murphy is the coxswain of the RNLI lifeboat in Dunmore East, Co Waterford. As told to Michael Freeman.

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