Even experienced people can run into danger
With our unpredictable weather systems, the Irish seas can turn treacherous in an instant. Some basic safety tips can prepare for you the worst
EVERY SIX HOURS, millions of litres of water charge through the gap between Ireland and Britain. On the west coast, the Atlantic swells and thrashes within huge weather patterns. With the correct skills, Ireland’s waters are among the most exciting places to enjoy water sports in the world. But they are unpredictable and dangerous.
Earlier this week, four men in their 20s had a lucky escape when they were rescued by the Royal National Lifeboat Institute. Their cheap inflatable dinghy capsized off the Dublin coast after being blown out to sea.
One of the group swam to shore, two were found clinging to a buoy, and the fourth man was later found floating in the sea.
The RNLI is a charity that manages the volunteer-run lifeboat service in Britain and Ireland. It responded to 8,000 call-outs last year. Half of these involved leisure craft and, according to Kevin Rahill, the organisation’s sea-safety officer in Ireland, many of them would have been unnecessary if the people involved had followed basic safety procedures.
“Leisure craft are unregulated,” he says, “so a big part of what we do is to try to get people to increase their safety on a voluntary basis: wear a life jacket, understand weather conditions, undertake training.” The RNLI runs safety-at-sea sessions and will come on to your boat to evaluate your equipment and test your life jacket. There’s a legal requirement to wear a life jacket if your boat is less than seven metres long. Above that, you have to have life jackets on board for all passengers, but there’s no requirement to wear them.
“Standards are improving,” Rahill says. “People are better trained, more capable, and we have definitely seen an increase in the wearing of life jackets. But even the most experienced people, with the best equipment, can run into danger. What’s important then is that they know how to deal with it, how to get help.”
A mobile phone is not a good primary means of communication at sea as you can go out of range very quickly. “There’s no harm in bringing it as a backup, but you really need to bring a VHF radio, for which a licence is required,” says Rahill.
RTÉ this week broadcast footage of a pod of dolphins that has made its home in Killiney Bay and showed kayakers paddling out to meet them. Des Keaney, who runs training courses with Deep Blue Sea kayaking in Dalkey, has paddled with the dolphins a number of times. “I spent about two hours with them on Saturday. They’re wild animals so we don’t get too close. We sit about 20m away, and the younger ones come up and investigate us.”
He’s sure they will attract people to sea who wouldn’t normally be there. “My main concern is that people recognise the dangers. You can sit in Bulloch Harbour, in Dalkey, in perfectly calm conditions, but once you get outside the harbour wall the winds can be very strong, and an inexperienced paddler could be swept away, particularly if they are on sit-on-top kayaks.”
Sit-on-tops are great for recreational paddling close to the shore, but they are not designed for the open sea. They are cheaper than traditional ocean-going kayaks and appear harder to capsize, but they sit high on the water and so are easily affected by the wind, he says.
Seán Pierce, who helped draft a code of practice for the maritime-safety directorate and the Irish Coast Guard, agrees.
“What we would be saying to everyone is to get trained. You need to know how to control your craft, how to use it in Ireland’s complicated weather conditions and what to do if things go wrong. The crucial thing is to know your limits. Canoeing in a force four or above should only be considered by the very experienced.
“People have a great sense of adventure, but also a sense of innocence,” he says. “I watched a man in a really big inflatable dinghy take to the sea in Howth recently. He had a suitcase on board and very little safety gear. People tried to warn him of the risks, but he didn’t want to know. He was excited about getting on the water but probably wasn’t aware that if his boat flipped over it would be almost impossible for him to right it again.
“At the very least, you’ve got to know how to rescue yourself and have a means to call for rescue. Water sports in Ireland are fantastic. Just be prepared for them.”
If you plan to go to sea
* Always wear a life jacket
* Get trained: knowledge of your activity is essential
* Carry some means of calling for help
* Check your engine and fuel
* Check the weather and tide conditions before heading out
* Tell others where you are going and when you’re coming back – and what to do if they don’t hear from you