Coast Guard winchman retires with more than 30 years' service

 

TRIBUTES HAVE been paid to one of the Irish Coast Guard’s longest serving and most experienced air-sea rescue crew member.

Noel Donnelly (55), who is retiring after more than 30 years’ service, worked as winchman and paramedic. He completed his last shift at the Sligo Coast Guard search and rescue base last week and retires officially this month.

Originally from Tyrone, Mr Donnelly began his career with the Air Corps, flying in Alouette and Puma helicopters. He left in 1984 to take a job as a diver with a civil engineering firm in Aberdeen, Scotland, and subsequently worked as an ambulance driver in Co Kildare.

However, his heart was always in marine rescue, and he was one of the first Coast Guard crew members stationed at the new west coast base at Shannon.

Among the many who owe him their lives were 17 Spanish and Portuguese crew who had to abandon their fishing vessel, the Milford Eagle, after it caught fire on January 31st, 2000, some 240km (150 miles) west of Shannon.

Pilot Derek Nequest and co-pilot Robert Goodbody were confronted by darkness and a heavy sea while Mr Donnelly was lowered into the water. The crew believed they were rescuing fewer than six men in life rafts.

Mr Donnelly swam through a 20-30ft swell with his winch cable attached only to find 17 terrified fishermen in several dinghies. He stayed with them for several hours until they were rescued with the help of another Spanish fishing vessel and the Dublin-based Sikorsky helicopter.

Former search and rescue pilot Dave Courtney, author of Nine Lives, said: “All the adjectives associated with bravery and courage can be attributed to him, but it was that extra little dimension, his sense of humour, that got people through.”

Irish Coast Guard director Chris Reynolds described Mr Donnelly as “one of the pioneers of dedicated helicopter search and rescue” in Ireland.