The heroic crew of Lough Swilly RNLI
In terms of Lough Swilly RNLI, the statistics speak for themselves, and how!
Since its establishment 32 years ago, the station's volunteers have clocked up an incredible 600 year's service.
However, these astounding statistics belie the bravery, compassion and humanitarian motivation of the organisation.
Speaking to Donegal Live, following a major, 12-hour rescue operation, in which Lough Swilly, Arranmore and Portrush RNLI were involved, bringing the crew of the stricken 'Sean Óg 2' to safety, John McCarter said: “Lough Swilly RNLI was founded in 1988 and recently, we have been celebrating five crew members who, between their 30 year and 20 year service badges, have clocked up about 150 years with Lough Swilly RNLI.
“That milestone prompted me to have a wee look at the rest of our fantastic crew. Generally, the Lough Swilly crew has clocked up in the region of 600 years service.
“That is a huge commitment for people to give of their time voluntarily, to save lives at sea, but that what we in Lough Swilly RNLI do.
“Our folks put their lives on the line. When that pager goes, they don't know what they are going to face. It could be something very simple. It could be rescuing a dog or a sheep or a cow, as we have done or we could find ourselves dealing with a very tragic situation, where a vessel is sinking and people are drowning or potentially drowning. So, when Lough Swilly RNLI goes to sea, we never know what is going to happen,” said John.
And yet, the volunteers of Lough Swilly RNLI are prepared to put their lives on the line, day or night.
Actually, 40 percent of Lough Swilly RNLI launches occur at night-time, as John said, “in the hours of darkness, when it is more difficult to operate, in difficult sea conditions.”
John added: “Lough Swilly RNLI are an amazing bunch of people who do this. As Lifeboat Operations Manager, I have the sometimes difficult responsibility of deciding whether the crew should go to sea or not. The crew is always mad keen to get out there.
“But, we have to be conscious about the weather, whether we are putting people at risk. Is the risk to them greater than the risk we are going to alleviate?
“Fortunately, in the 10 or 12 years I have been involved in Lough Swilly RNLI, I have never had to make that call that says 'No, you don't go and we'll leave it to somebody else.' We have always managed to get out there and do our bit and perform the service we are there to do.
“Lough Swilly RNLI covers a big area. We are based in Buncrana. We cover all of Lough Swilly and we go west about as far as Tory Island and east about as far as the mouth of the Foyle, up to 100 miles out to sea. Now, we rarely have to go 100 miles out to sea but we have the boats and the capability to go about 250 nautical miles. However, most incidents happen within about 10 miles of the coast,” said John.
In the whole of the ring of the British Isles, Lough Swilly RNLI probably operates one of the biggest patches there is.
As John poetically added: “In the more populous areas of the east coast of Britain and the south coast of Ireland, you could nearly spit between lifeboat stations.
“Up here in the north west, we have a smaller population but we have a very big sea lane just out on the North Coast of Ireland. There is a lot of traffic coming back and forward to the main ports. There is a lot of activity, a lot of fishing activity and pleasure activity, so we have a big patch, a big area to cover. There is a great community here that really drives it forward.
“The RNLI speaks of four qualities: selflessness, dependability, integrity and honesty, and every one of our crew really embodies those qualities.They are really fine human beings.
“They have a sense of responsibility and they have a sense of purpose, to go out there to look for their fellow man or woman, whenever they are in bother. There is never a question in their head but they have to go and help somebody,” said John.
Lough Swilly RNLI is wholly financed by voluntary contributions. Many people believe Governments should finance the organisation, however, the RNLI is nearly 200 years old and it has never been financed in any other way.
According to John, funding by voluntary contribution has given “fantastic independence.”
John reflected: “While that is a superb position for the RNLI to be in, we are only here because of the fantastic support, which we receive from the public and the massive amount of fundraising activity they undertake on our behalf.
“Interestingly though, a huge chunk of RNLI income actually comes from legacy, people actively thinking of the people coming after them. A lot of our boats, the big capital items, are generally financed by legacies. Where you see boats with people's names on them, people have provided 50 percent of the cost of a boat. Naming the boat after someone is a very small token of RNLI appreciation.
“But, it is not always about big donations. In many ways, it's the little things that stick in your throat, like when the little kids come along and put their pocket money into the box. They too are thinking about people that need help. And it is amazing how the level of support for the RNLI continues.
“Here in Inishowen, I never cease to be amazed at the level of support that the community gives us. Maybe it is to do with the fact we are a coastal community and we are a peninsula and the water is all around us and every village and townland in Inishowen has come across us at some stage, hopefully mostly happy,” said John.
Inishowen has had its share of marine tragedy, especially in the fishing communities around our coast. Inishowen People do value the work that the Lough Swilly RNLI does and support the organisation generously.
John McCarter said the people of the peninsula were “amazing.” He added: “Inishowen is by far the most generous part of the country, when you look at it per head of the population. And it's not just the lifeboats, they are an amazing people, who get behind so many other charities.”
Joe Joyce, who is the Lough Swilly RNLI PRO said at the start of 2019, the organisation became aware four of the crew were eligible for special awards.
With evident pride, Joe said: “We had George O'Hagan (30 year badge), Brigita Kelly (30 year badge), Seosamh Mahon (20 year badge); and Alan O'Hagan (20 year badge). To mark these significant milestones, they were invited up to the Harbour Commissioners offices in Belfast, where there was formal acknowledgement of the service. It was a lovely night.
“The awards are all the more meaningful when you think about the commitment people are making to the RNLI, the amount of time they are volunteering and what that means, like always having to stay about Buncrana.
“Crew might have a family day planned, going to the beach or whatever and everything is good and then, all of a sudden your pager goes off and that day's gone up the left and you are coming home with disappointed partners and disappointed kids. That goes on 365 days of the year.
“Lough Swilly Volunteers are doing a really good job and their families deserve the utmost praise, families that are putting up with dinners cancelled, family events cancelled, kids' trips put off. That can take its toll on a family but I think people recognise too, when you go out and it is something serious,” mused Joe.
Reflecting on his RNLI experience, Joe added, “Sometimes the outcomes are not positive and it becomes about bringing closure to people.”
Sadly Joe recalled Lough Swilly had had its share of tragedies.
He said: “Down through they years, there have been lots of incidents but everything that happens to a station makes it stronger. As a station we have a way of dealing with tragedy. We come together in close session and we talk about things and see that everyone all right. We touch base in a day or two and sometimes we just sit and say nothing.
“The thing I have found in the RNLI is you make great friends here. Probably people that you wouldn't normally directly meet but they join the crew and there is a great sense of helping one another out, which just doesn't extend to the boat. You start taking an interest in people's lives.
“I have made great friends here through Lough Swilly RNLI, not just in Buncrana but in Ireland and around the Britain. When you are away, you just gravitate towards Lifeboat Stations. And, if there is a shout and something happens and a boat goes out, you are thinking about the crew in those stations and if they are going through a bad time you are feeling for them you are sending them messages of support.
“Currently in Lough Swilly RNLI we have crew members on 30 year badges: Liam McGee (retired), Mark Barnett (retired), Brian Farren, George O'Hagan, and Brigita Kelly. Our 20 year badges are: Gregory McDaid, Eamon Mahon, Barry Stevenson, Seosamh Mahon, Seamus McDaid, Alan O'Hagan. It is amazing the huge commitment these people have made. But you don't really see it as a commitment. It is definitely not something that you are aiming for. As time passes, and it passes very quickly, the milestones just arrive. You just get involved and Lough Swilly RNLI is a great thing to be involved in,” said Joe.
Lough Swilly RNLI exercised 82 times last year and if you throw in its 30 call outs, the boats were out nearly twice a week, every four days.
Encouraging potential RNLI volunteers, Joe said the first requirement is they be over 18 years of age.
He added: “Our typical response time from when the pager goes off, to launching the boat is about 7 minutes. So, if you were in your bed tonight and the pager went off, that boat would be in the water in seven minutes. Our crew require their own transport and means of getting to the station on time.
“They also need to be able to get off their job, if the pager goes. They need to think of that arrangement. We have a wee application form, which can be filled out in the portacabin on Buncrana Pier and they we will take them out on the boat and see if they have an aptitude for the RNLI. We are always open to new blood.
“However, we also need shore crew and people who help about the station. There are openings, for example, for people who have retired and are looking to volunteer, including accountants or fundraisers.
“Lough Swilly RNLI is a Team. We are most successful when the team works, that is most important thing, getting it right, making sure there are adequate resources and training. We are fortunate we have the two boats and the facilities. We will try and get better facilities but that is another story,” smiled Joe.
Anxious to get across the RNLI's water safety message, Joe advised anyone going out on a boat to tell someone where they were going.
He advised: “Tell someone where you are going and what time you are expected back. Wear a life jacket and keep in contact with someone on the shore who can be alerted.
“If someone is in difficulty in the water, ring 999 and ask for the Coastguard. They will then pass the appropriate response. It is important to reiterate, if you have a problem on the water the Coastguard are the authority to go to ring.
“If you see something you think is a problem, don't hesitate. We prefer to be called. We will go out when there is nothing there because, if someone holds back and says I wonder if I should call the Coastguard, then there could be somebody in trouble. Call and let us make the call. Never hesitate. We don't mind if we go on a wild goose chase It is vital time that we could save.
“Lough Swilly RNLI has also had 1,100 kids through the station this year, as we do an awful lot of education work. Kids come on station visits. They come and see the boats and and get a talk and a video. We have a campaign called 'Respect the Water' and we partner with the GAA. We are also actively out there in the community delivering these talks. We are teaching people to respect the water and we are teaching people how to float,” said Joe.
John McCarter also delivers talks to interested parties, including Men's Sheds, to encourage “prevention.” John revealed the RNLI also has a team, which liaises with fishermen.
He added: “We also rescue a lot of people who never intended to get into the water. Dog walkers often get into difficulty in the water. They might find themselves way out of their depth when they go to rescue the dog. People can also be cut off by the sea. And think they can wade across or whatever.
“200 people drowned around the coast Britain and Ireland last year and none of them intended them to be in the water. It is an RNLI aim to halve the number of drownings by its 200th Birthday in 2024.
“In March 2020, Lough Swilly RNLI will be partnering with the Inishowen Athletics Club to organise a 5K at Fort Dunree for the RNLI and the local Church of Ireland. This challenging event is scheduled for March 29,” laughed John.
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