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The Ballycotton lifeboat saves the Daunt Rock lightship crew

Posted in Boats, Bravery, Disasters, Historical articles, Ships on Friday, 28 June 2013

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This edited article about lifeboat rescue originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

A fierce gale had turned the village of Ballycotton, in County Cork, into a place of nightmare. Fishermen walking along the winding streets and alleyways were hit by slates blown from the rooftops, and housewives out shopping were knocked to the ground by the force of the wind. In the picturesque harbour, the sea had damaged the breakwater, and pieces of rock were being tossed about as if they were made of paper.

The fishermen spent the night of 10th February, 1936, securing their boats. The telephone wires between Ballycotton and the rest of Eire had been blown down, and the following morning a messenger came by car with the news that the Daunt Rock lightship had broken loose from her moorings. The eight men on board the lightship were at the mercy of the sea, and their only hope of rescue lay in the Ballycotton lifeboat.

When Patrick Sliney, coxswain of the lifeboat, heard this, he immediately ordered that no maroons should be fired to alert the crew. He knew that it was almost suicidal to put to sea in such weather, and he did not want to frighten the women of the village.

Instead, he told the seven crew members to go quietly to the lifeboat station, where they could take the boat out before anyone realised what was happening.

Once the boat had left the harbour, Coxswain Sliney decided to take the quickest, but most dangerous, route to the lightship, and steered a course through a narrow sound which saved half a mile. Great seas crashed repeatedly over the boat, and each time this happened Sliney counted the crew to make sure that no one had been washed overboard.

Despite reports that the lightship was drifting towards Ballycotton, Sliney could find no sign of her, so he put into Cobh (pronounced Cove) which was a port of call for the transatlantic liners. Here he ascertained the whereabouts of the lightship, and he and his crew were at sea again within an hour.

Conditions were now rapidly worsening, but shortly before noon Sliney spotted the lightship; she was drifting in the direction of the Daunt Rock and was some half-mile from the shore. The destroyer Tenedos was standing by her.

For the next few hours, until it was dark, Sliney and his crew helped the destroyer to try and attach a wire hawser to the lightship, so that she could be towed into port. Each time, however, the hawser parted, and the lifeboat was finally forced to return to Cobh alone.

Sliney resumed the rescue attempt the next morning. The Tenedos left, and the lifeboat spent the following 24 hours standing by. The lightship was so badly out of position that she was a danger to navigation, and Sliney had to warn approaching vessels to keep away from the area.

Although there was no food on board the lifeboat, she remained near the lightship until breakfast-time. Then, with little petrol left, she returned to Cobh for fuel and provisions. By this time several of the crew were suffering from salt-water burns and seasickness and Sliney himself had an injured hand.

The crew snatched some sleep, then, that same afternoon, put to sea once more, to find that the Commissioners of Irish Lights had sent the vessel Isolda to try and tow the lightship into harbour. But this attempt was as fruitless as the last.

Darkness fell. Sliney dropped astern of the lightship, and kept a searchlight beamed on her. The wind had changed direction, and was now driving the lightship nearer to the Daunt Rock.

The coxswain waited until there was only some 50 yards left between the rock and the ship. Then he decided to act.

Despite all persuasion, the crew of the lightship had insisted on remaining on board. But for them to do so any longer would mean their certain death. He had to get them off!

Sliney could not approach the lightship from windward, so he planned to make a series of dashes to her port side. This would give the stranded men a few seconds in which to leap to safety. But if any man mis-timed his jump, he would fall into the sea and have little chance of being picked up.

In an attempt to calm the water, Sliney pumped oil on to the surface, but it had little effect.

The lifeboat then made her first run and lay alongside the lightship just long enough for one man to jump. The lifeboat pulled sharply away, and then turned back for her second run. But this time the conditions were too bad.

At the third run, five of the lightship’s crew were able to leap clear. The fourth was again futile, and this time the lifeboat was damaged as the sea flung the two vessels against each other.

Yet another unsuccessful attempt was made to rescue the two remaining seamen – who were now clinging to the rails of the lightship and could neither jump nor return to their own deck. Then, weighing the situation carefully, Sliney saw that there was only one thing left to do. The men must be snatched off.

He ordered some of his crew to move forward, to grab the two men as they came alongside. This would double the danger, as not only could the lightship men be lost, but their rescuers might also overbalance into the sea, and be swept away into the night. But the fishermen from Ballycotton did not hesitate. They went up to the bows of the pitching lifeboat and stood ready to grab the almost exhausted men. And, as the two vessels again came together, the survivors were pulled on to the lifeboat’s deck. They were both injured in the process – one in the face and the other in the legs – and had to receive immediate first-aid.

The lifeboat and her gallant crew had now been away from home for more than 76 hours, of which 49 had been spent at sea. For a while, it seemed that the worst of the ordeal must be over; but then, as they sailed back to Cobh harbour, yet another hazard confronted them. One of the lightship men finally gave way to his emotions. In a fit of hysteria he tried to throw himself overboard, and had to be forcibly held down until his reason returned. His behaviour drained the men of the last of their strength, though no one blamed him for cracking under the intolerable strain.

That night the men of the Ballycotton lifeboat slept more soundly than they had ever done before in their lives. Then, next day, they sailed home to their waiting wives and sweethearts, in weather which was unexpectedly kind to them.

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