Was the emergency rescue effort in Strangford Lough an overreaction?

The alarm was raised independently of the race organisers

Rescue services in Killyleagh where a major incident was declared after a large number of boats capsized in stormy seas during the GP14 world championships. Photograph: Presseye

Rescue services in Killyleagh where a major incident was declared after a large number of boats capsized in stormy seas during the GP14 world championships. Photograph: Presseye

Tue, Aug 12, 2014, 01:00

“It might have looked very dramatic from shore, with boats enveloped in squalls of wind and rain, thunder and lightning and even hailstones . . . but really we were all fine!”

The words of Irish Olympian sailor Ger Owens in Strangford Lough yesterday after a major emergency plan was activated to rescue sailors competing in the GP14 dinghy world championships.

Skippers such as Owens relish weather, and lots of it. The conditions forecast for Strangford Lough yesterday were ideal for a contest that has attracted some of the top international competitors in his class.

Wind speeds in the lough – renowned for its strong tides – were predicted to drop from 20 knots at 7am to 16 knots by 1pm, which would have been well within capabilities. The first race in the week-long event had already been run when a decision was taken to send the fleet in.

It was at that stage, while the 14-foot dinghies were on a tack known as beating, that the fleet became somewhat dispersed. Gusts, similar in intensity to the “williwaws” that sweep down from mountains in the southern hemisphere, resulted in several “knock-downs” or capsizes.

Safety cover

Helm and crew in racing dinghies would be well trained in righting upturned craft, and race officials must have adequate safety cover for those who encounter any difficulty. However, it is understood the alarm was raised independently of the race organisers.

As a result the sailors found themselves the focus of what might have appeared at first to be a cross-Border training exercise, but was in fact an unscheduled interagency response. The Irish Coast Guard’s Dublin-based Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, the PSNI, RNLI lifeboats and even an RAF rescue helicopter from Valley in Wales were involved.

“We had been screaming along the lough in wonderful conditions, the teenagers out there were just loving it, and we were only disappointed we didn’t get a second race,” said Norman Lee of Greystones Sailing Club, a member of the GP14 national committee.

One competitor came ashore to find more than 50 missed calls from worried friends and family on his mobile phone, while others were bemused to find themselves the focus of TV crews – shades of the Youth Regatta off Dún Laoghaire in July 2007 when a number of Optimist dinghies capsized in a squall.

Medical checks

Back then, highly skilled young sailors seeking a warm drink found themselves whisked to ambulances for medical checks.Was there a similar overreaction yesterday?

“That’s not something you can say, because you can never take the chance,” says former GP14 national champion Pat Murphy. “But a world class event like this would always be run to the highest standards.”

As he notes, all competitors were accounted for very quickly in an impressive demonstration of both rescue-agency capability and race organisation.