Aran Islands skipper describes crew’s rescue off Scottish coast

Helicopter saves five men from fishing vessel ‘Iúda Naofa’ after it started taking water

Aran Islands skipper Mairtín “20” Ó Conghaíle is delighted to be marking a big birthday next week - all the more so after spending some unscheduled minutes earlier this week in heavy seas off the Scottish Outer Hebrides.

"She fought it to the last, but she was gone under within 35 seconds," Ó Conghaíle (63), of Inis Mór, says of his 23-metre wooden vessel Iúda Naofa, which sank about 48 miles north of the Butt of Lewis on Monday morning.

“They often say it’s good to be above ground, but we are also very lucky to be above water,” Ó Conghaíle, from Kilmurvey on Inis Mór, told The Irish Times, speaking from a ferry to Ullapool.

Ó Conghaíle and crew were forced to jump clear of their vessel, so quickly did the Atlantic take it.


Taking water

The skipper had notified Malin Coast Guard some 90 minutes before, when the vessel began taking water, affecting two generators and cutting out power. Winds at the time were southerly force 6, with turbulent seas.

“We left Rossaveal [Co Galway] at the weekend, and we had a good trip with a boat full of mackerel,” he explained.

“I was really looking forward to a trip through the islands and back to land in Derry,” he says.

Aran Islands vessel Star of Hope, which had been pair-trawling with the Iúda Naofa, was also preparing to steam home.

Malin Coast Guard alerted the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which deployed a rescue helicopter from Stornoway with a pump.

“We had problems starting it, and I told the pilot I didn’t like the look of the list of the boat,” the skipper said.

Jump clear

“One man had been winched off, and I was in the wheelhouse on the radio. My son said it was time to go and we had to jump clear from the stern,” he says.

The five on board - Ó Conghaíle, his son Micheál, Padhraig Breathneach and Eric Hernon from Carna, Co Galway and Vitor Lebit from Romania - were all wearing immersion suits, and were able to float.

They were in the water for about eight minutes, during which time the Iúda Naofa slipped silently under.

"I had that boat for 23 years," Ó Conghaíle says. The Sligo-registered vessel was one of a fleet built by Bord Iascaigh Mhara in Downings, Co Donegal, in 1978.

“ It’s a different type of sea, a different type of weather out there now and even the forecasters find it hard to get it right,” he said. “It must be climate change.”

Mild hypothermia

Two of the five were airlifted by the helicopter onto the Star of Hope, and three, including Ó Conghaíle, were flown to the Western Isles Hospital on the Isle of Lewis for treatment for mild hypothermia.

“The Missions to Seamen looked after us really well - it was unreal,” Ó Conghaíle said. “They do a lot of great work that no one takes much notice of.”

Ó Conghaíle recalls that he got one fright before when he was a young crewman. “It was in bad seas off the west coast. The boat survived. We had a narrow escape, and I’ll leave it at that,” he says.

His other son, Mairtín Éinne, would have been skippering the vessel this week, but was doing a course.

“Will I go to sea again? Well, my priority is to get the young lads organised,” Ó Conghaíle said. “But yes, I’m too old to be doing anything else!”

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times