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'These are the days you live for': RNLI volunteers recall dramatic rescue of young paddle-boarders in Galway

There was jubilation this week when cousins Sara Feeney and Ellen Glynn were found off Inis Oirr.

Image: Shutterstock/silvergull

THERE WERE JUBILANT scenes in the West of Ireland this week when two young women were rescued off the Galway coast after spending 15 hours swept away at sea.

Cousins Sara Feeney (23) and Ellen Glynn (17) were found off Inis Oirr on Thursday morning after they were swept out while paddle boarding on Furbo Beach at around 9pm on Wednesday night.

Eight agencies were involved in the dramatic operation to bring the two girls ashore. Two members of different RNLI groups describe the rescue in detail.

Ian O’Gorman – Galway RNLI lifeboat crewmember

When the pager went off around 10.10pm in the evening I was baby-sitting our new-born.

I was doing the night shift. I ended up going out on the third crew change. Galway RNLI operates an inshore lifeboat. It can do 35 knots, but its remit is closer to shore in shallower waters and it has about a three hours duration before you need to refuel.

We were a fresh crew of four when we left at 6.30am and we brought out breakfast to the Aran Islands lifeboat crew. They ate fast, not wanting to delay the search.

Their lifeboat can stay out hours and the crew had been onboard since the night before.

We had a briefing with John, the Coxswain and took up the search. The weather was mixed, views were good, but the seas changed from flat to choppy in an instant.

In the daylight we had about one-mile visibility and we search along parallel lines between Blackhead and Spídeal.

Looking at it now, we must have been about five miles away from where the two girls were when they were found. As lifeboat crew, you don’t lose hope. You look at what they have going for them; they were on paddleboards; they aren’t going anywhere. Nobody was thinking the worst-case scenario.

Ian O'Gorman Ian O'Gorman

During the search we continuously rotated who was driving the lifeboat. This helped maintain focus on the job at hand as long searching is mentally draining. Every potential object you spot on the water gives a spark of hope followed by disappointment.

We stayed in the vicinity of the Aran Islands lifeboat for the most part, answering calls from the Coast Guard to check on sightings which turned out to be false alarms but with good intent.

We met with members of Oranmore Maree, a volunteer organisation with shoreline members and a boat, and we talked with them about where they had searched and where we would go.

At 11.30am we refuelled and changed out two of the lifeboat crew, I stayed on. We were quite close to Inis Óirr when we heard the news over the radio.

We know Patrick and Morgan very well. Patrick was lifeboat crew and is now shore crew with Galway RNLI. We heard him tell the Coast Guard that he had them and we were all ecstatic.

We returned to the station escorting Patrick’s fishing boat. The reaction was phenomenal.

As we approached Galway docks a shout went up and people were lining both sides, clapping and cheering. We all joined in, doing our best to observe social distancing of course.

We were so thrilled for the lads. The call had gone around the crew and everyone dropped what they were doing and headed down to the harbour. One of the crew even ran out of a work meeting, having been on an earlier crew shift.

Those two girls did everything right. They stayed together, they stayed calm, secured themselves and had their lifejackets on. These are the days you live for as lifeboat crew.

John O’Donnell – Aran Islands RNLI coxswain

We were launched after Galway lifeboat, but we knew what we were going out to as I’d already had a call from the Coast Guard at Valentia.

The crew turned up as their pagers went off, but I held one back. He was a coxswain too and I thought I might need him if the search went on.

He needed to be rested and ready to take command if we came in for a crew change in the event of a long search. The all-weather lifeboat can stay out for hours but when you are looking for someone in the water you need the crew to have fresh eyes and be alert.

I was already thinking of a second lifeboat crew, you have to do that.

Searching for a casualty in the dark is a slow business and you go steadily on with the lights onboard turned out facing the sea, following what’s called a ‘creeping line’. You can only see about ten yards in front of you and that’s where your attention is focused.

I had three lifeboat crew on top looking out, one looking ahead and the other two to each side of them. Each had a searchlight. I was in the wheelhouse along with the mechanic.

You’re hoping you’ll see them appear right in front of you. You’re in constant contact with the Coast Guard, listening to every update.

John and Ciaran O'Donnell John O'Donnell (right) with his son Ciaran

We were searching in an area called Blackhead, going back and forth, tracing out lines to cover the whole area. We must have passed the girls somewhere as they drifted out but how close we were to them, I don’t know.

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The rain was unreal, it was falling quite heavily through the night. There was lightning but in concentrating during the search I initially thought it was the lights from Galway lifeboat.

When you get a callout in the evening you don’t think of hunger, you just go. As light came up, and we kept on, we got an unexpected delivery from the Galway lifeboat crew.

Barry Heskin, their Launching Authority, had thrown some sandwiches and bottles of water into bags and Galway lifeboat brought it out to us as they changed their crew and refuelled.

At that time and after a night searching, it tasted better than a meal in a five-star hotel. As we searched through the night, we were aware of our colleagues in the Coast Guard helicopters above our heads.

We were joined by the Coast Guard boat from Costelloe Bay and Doolin came on scene for a few hours before the light brought out local fishermen and shore helpers.

One thing I have learned in my many years as coxswain of the lifeboat is that you have to switch off and you can’t think about what might have happened.

You have a job and that is to find them and the only way you can do that is to put your head down and keep going and just switch off from the ‘what-ifs’.

We had false alarms during the day as sightings from the shore turned out to be nothing, but you must treat each one as if it’s something.

Someone was looking out for Ellen and Sara, that’s for sure. They knew how to keep the head and did that all through the night.

I’ve seen the devastation of families who have lost loved ones. Two lads who fished with me were lost up at Roundstone in an awful tragedy.

The lifeboat went to Inis Óirr as Patrick and Morgan Oliver were bringing them to meet the Coast Guard helicopter.

Two of our lifeboat crew went ashore to assist in the transfer and the rest of us watched from aboard the lifeboat. And just like that, the switch went back on and we were delighted, realising what could have happened and thankfully didn’t.

John O’Donnell and Ian O’Gorman are volunteers with Aran Island and Galway RNLI Lifeboat crews respectively.

About the author:

John O'Donell and Ian O'Gorman

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