DCSIMG

Taming the Sea

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Lough Swilly's lifeboat station and the couple who fought tooth and nail for it are celebrating its milestone and reflecting on the tragedy that sparked its arrival.

Twenty years ago this week the lifeboat station was officially opened at Ned's Point after a three and a half year battle by Pat and Kate Heaney from Fahan to get the facilities up and running.

Sadly, they were spurred into launching the then-vital campaign in the wake of the untimely and tragic death of windsurfer, Brian Coulter. Brian died on December 14, 1984, and after the incident Kate said she, her husband and the whole community felt 'total frustration' he wasn't saved.

Their attentions were focused on getting the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to set up a station on Lough Swilly.

Prior to this, there was no marina in Fahan and all the boats - which were there during the summer months - had to be lifted out of the water by October because of the insurance rules.

Brian was killed after getting into difficulty on the lough and, because of a number of factors, efforts to rescue him failed. He had gone out windsurfing alone on that tragic Sunday afternoon and people watching from the shore realised he was experiencing difficulty.

Brian Flanagan, also a keen windsurfer and lived nearby, telephoned across to Rathmullan to get a message down to the Irish Naval vessel berthed at the pier, to launch a boat and help him.But, sadly that message didn't get through.

The Heaneys learned of Brian's difficulties from the Gardai and they went straight to Roneragh House and began calling people in a bid to get a boat fit to go and look for Brian.

Pat even phoned his sailing partner, the Rev George Good, the then Dean of Derry, to see if he could get a helicopter from the British army to fly out from Derry to search for Brian and lift him.

Despite his best efforts, protocol did not allow the British army to fly into Irish airspace - this restriction no longer exists in emergency situations.

Pat said it wasn't until 8pm that evening a boat was brought out from Derry to look for Brian.

He said: "By that time it was pitch dark, blowing a gale and it was bitterly cold.

"As attempts were made to launch the boat into the stormy Swilly, I knew it was too dangerous - either Brian had made it to shore on his own steam or the worst had happened.

"Either way if the guys went out in those conditions they could be lost."

His body was found in Leenan Bay the next morning and after his funeral there were many people who said that "if only a suitable boat could have been got on the day, he might have been saved".

The following month the Lough Swilly had seen the death of yet another canoeist, from Derry, who was drowned while kayaking off Inch Island.

And it was by the end of January 1985 the Heaneys decided something must be done and started talking to people involved with the RNLI.

Meetings were held with RNLI fundraisers from both Donegal and Derry and early discussions talked about getting a lifeboat kept on a trailer which could be operated between the Foyle and the Swilly.

But this idea was soon abandoned.

Research

The Heaneys researched what incidents had occurred on Lough Swilly over the past five years and were alarmed at how many lives Lough Swilly had claimed.

They then set about finding out if enough people were interested in managing and crewing a lifeboat. Kate organised meetings in Buncrana and from day one a strong potential team began to emerge and offered their help - Liam McGee, Barry Stevenson, Pat Carlin, Mark Porter, Mark Barnett, Jim and Patrick Quinn, Dawn Stevenson, Brian Farren, Gerard Gallager, Brian McCafferty, Danny McLaughlin, Charlie Longwell and Thomas (the Millar) Doherty. Buncrana Councillors attended the meetings and offered their support.

Where to locate a lifeboat station was the next problem.Inspector of lifeboats, at the time, Jeff Mankertz, favoured Ned's Point because it had relatively deep water at the end of the slipway most of the time.

Kate said: "It was thanks to the trojan efforts of Thomas (the Miller) Doherty who managed to convince then Town Clerk, Paul Doyle and the councillors to carry out some repairs to the old boathouse at Ned's Point and be leased to the RNLI at a minimal rent.

"The RNLI put the work out to tender and Patrick Duffy got the job of refurbishing the derelict boat house. During those years the RNLI Management Committee came to Buncrana and inspected the proposal and gave their support to Lough Swilly becoming the RNLI's newest station. At that time the nearest lifeboat stations were Portrush and Arranmore."

Training began in earnest for the crew and officers and the RNLI asked Pat to become Lough Swilly's first Station Honorary Secretary. Liam McGee and Barry Stevenson became Deputy Launching Authorities.

Jeff spent many days in Buncrana helping with training and Pat got sent to RNLI Headquarters in Poole to learn more about how the organisation worked and how each launch had to be logged.

Kate took on the role of Station Honorary Secretary of fund raising, undaunted by the huge cost of setting up a new lifeboat station. The RNLI's National fund raising secretary, James Kavanagh rolled in with his vast experience.

Phil Coulter kindly offered to do a charity concert to help raise funds and that was a sell-out in the Plaza on 26 October 1987. Contractors Michael Doran and Patrick Duffy gave their services free to extend the stage of the Plaza to accommodate Phil's orchestra and his grand piano.

The D-Class lifeboat was placed on site in March of 1987 and training and call-out procedures were tested rigorously as the lifeboat began to get called out to both seafarers and swimmers.

And the Finner-based rescue helicopter flew up and conducted exercises with the crew which were then put into practise as the number of call-outs increased.

It wasn't before long the National Lottery helped cough-up funds to help refurbish the old house at Ned's Point as a base for the crew and their gear.

Dr. Eoin Sullivan kindly volunteered to carry out the essential medical examinations for crew free of charge and Harry Curtis, Optician, from Derry volunteered his services free for the eye tests each crew member had to undergo.

Reggie Ryan was invited to become Chairman of Fundraising and former AIB bank manager Eamon Flynn kindly took on the onerous duty of Treasurer.

Pat said: "The day the lifeboat station was officially opened was a very emotional day for everyone involved. Both Kate and I felt a great sense of achievement and pride as we watched the D-Class lifeboat go down the slipway that day. The local community had come together and the volunteer crew and officers readily gave of their time to make Lough Swilly a safer place for all users from then on.

Lives saved

"To date Lough Swilly lifeboat has saved 14 lives which would have otherwise been lost. The inshore and all weather boats have launched a total of 510 times in those 20 years and have become one of the best crewed and equipped stations in these islands."

It took Pat and Kate three and a half years to bring the RNLI to Lough Swilly and the pair say the hard fought battle was extremely worthwhile.

Letters from RNLI Assistant Chief of Operations, Mike Woodroffe to Pat and Kate Heaney following the opening, paid tribute to their efforts.

In the letter, he said: "It was your vision and organising ability, coupled with Jeff's dedication and hard work, that force fed the seed and in RNLI time scale at least, produced a flourishing flower in a short gestation period.

"The RNLI is greatly indebted to you for all you have done towards setting up the station and for the tremendous amount of hard work you put in to make Sunday the success it undoubtedly was. From many miles away in Poole we all at Headquarters will watch the growing up of our newest family member with interest and for me it will always have a special place in my heart".

The then Commodore of Lough Swilly Yacht Club, Owen McGonagle wrote to the RNLI following the opening, to welcome the establishment of the lifeboat station.

He said: "The new lifeboat has definitely raised safety consciousness and people are reminded when they see it that sacrifices are made on their behalf. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the RNLI and all connected with the development.

"I am aware that James Kavanagh our National Organiser had a hand in it and also Mr and Mrs Pat Heaney of Fahan. They not only talked about doing something but actually achieved a great deal. I sincerely hope your organisation can maintain the service and continue to grow in those areas not already provided for."

In 1992 Pat became Chairman of Lough Swilly Lifeboat Station, handing over the day to day running to Liam McGee, Barry Stevenson and Pat Carlin. Kate stepped down as SHS of fund raising and that job is done today by John McCarter. But, sadly that message didn’t get through.

The Heaneys learned of Brian’s difficulties from the Gardai and they went straight to Roneragh House and began calling people in a bid to get a boat fit to go and look for Brian.

Pat even phoned his sailing partner, the Rev George Good, the then Dean of Derry, to see if he could get a helicopter from the British army to fly out from Derry to search for Brian and lift him.

Despite his best efforts protocol did not allow the British army to fly into Irish airspace - this restriction no longer exists in emergency situations.

Pat said it wasn’t until 8pm that evening a boat was brought out from Derry to look for Brian.

He said: “By that time it was pitch dark, blowing a gale and it was bitterly cold.

“As attempts were made to launch the boat into the stormy Swilly, I knew it was too dangerous - either Brian had made it to shore on his own steam or the worst had happened.

“Either way if the guys went out in those conditions they could be lost.”

His body was found in Leenan Bay the next morning and after his funeral there were many people who said that ‘if only a suitable boat could have been got on the day, he might have been saved’.

The following month the Lough Swilly had seen the death of yet another canoeist, from Derry, who was drowned while kayaking off Inch Island.

And it was by the end of January 1985 the Heaneys decided something must be done and started talking to people involved with the RNLI.

Meetings were held with RNLI fundraisers from both Donegal and Derry and early discussions talked about getting a lifeboat kept on a trailer which could be operated between the Foyle and the Swilly.

But this idea was soon abandoned.

Research

The Heaneys researched what incidents had occurred on Lough Swilly over the past five years and were alarmed at how many lives Lough Swilly had claimed.

They then set about finding out if enough people were interested in managing and crewing a lifeboat. Kate organised meetings in Buncrana and from day one a strong potential team began to emerge and offered their help - Liam McGee, Barry Stevenson, Pat Carlin, Mark Porter, Mark Barnett, Jim and Patrick Quinn, Dawn Stevenson, Brian Farren, Gerard Gallager, Brian McCafferty, Danny McLaughlin, Charlie Longwell and Thomas (the Millar) Doherty. Buncrana Councillors attended the meetings and offered their support.

Where to locate a lifeboat station was the next problem.Inspector of lifeboats, at the time, Jeff Mankertz, favoured Ned’s Point because it had relatively deep water at the end of the slipway most of the time.

Kate said: “It was thanks to the trojan efforts of Thomas (the Millar) Doherty who managed to convince then Town Clerk, Paul Doyle and the councillors to carry out some repairs to the old boathouse at Ned’s Point and be leased to the RNLI at a minimal rent.

“The RNLI put the work out to tender and Patrick Duffy got the job of refurbishing the derelict boat house. During those years the RNLI Management Committee came to Buncrana and inspected the proposal and gave their support to Lough Swilly becoming the RNLI’s newest station. At that time the nearest lifeboat stations were Portrush and Arranmore.”

Training began in earnest for the crew and officers and the RNLI asked Pat to become Lough Swilly’s first Station Honorary Secretary. Liam McGee and Barry Stevenson became Deputy Launching Authorities.

Jeff spent many days in Buncrana helping with training and Pat got sent to RNLI Headquarters in Poole to learn more about how the organisation worked and how each launch had to be logged.

Kate took on the role of Station Honorary Secretary of fund raising, undaunted by the huge cost of setting up a new lifeboat station. The RNLI's National fund raising secretary, James Kavanagh rolled in with his vast experience.

Phil Coulter kindly offered to do a charity concert to help raise funds and that was a sell-out in the Plaza on 26 October 1987. Contractors Michael Doran and Patrick Duffy gave their services free to extend the stage of the Plaza to accommodate Phil’s orchestra and his grand piano.

The D-Class lifeboat was placed on site in March of 1987 and training and call-out procedures were tested rigorously as the lifeboat began to get called out to both seafarers and swimmers .

And the Finner-based rescue helicopter flew up and conducted exercises with the crew which were then put into practise as the number of call-outs increased.

It wasn’t before long the National Lottery helped cough-up funds to help refurbish the old house at Ned’s Point as a base for the crew and their gear.

Dr. Eoin Sullivan kindly volunteered to carry out the essential medical examinations for crew free of charge and Harry Curtis, Optician, from Derry volunteered his services free for the eye tests each crew member had to undergo.

Reggie Ryan was invited to become Chairman of Fundraising and former AIB bank manager Eamon Flynn kindly took on the onerous duty of Treasurer.

Pat said: “The day the lifeboat station was officially opened was a very emotional day for everyone involved. Both Kate and I felt a great sense of achievement and pride as we watched the D-Class lifeboat go down the slipway that day. The local community had come together and the volunteer crew and officers readily gave of their time to make Lough Swilly a safer place for all users from then on.

Lives saved

"To date Lough Swilly lifeboat has saved 14 lives which would have otherwise been lost. The inshore and all weather boats have launched a total of 510 times in those 20 years and have become one of the best crewed and equipped stations in these islands.”

It took Pat and Kate three and a half years to bring the RNLI to Lough Swilly and the pair say the hard fought battle was extremely worthwhile.

Letters from RNLI Assistant Chief of Operations, Mike Woodroffe to Pat and Kate Heaney following the opening, paid tribute to their efforts.

In the letter, he said: "It was your vision and organising ability, coupled with Jeff's dedication and hard work, that force fed the seed and in RNLI time scale at least, produced a flourishing flower in a short gestation period.

“The RNLI is greatly indebted to you for all you have done towards setting up the station and for the tremendous amount of hard work you put in to make Sunday the success it undoubtedly was. From many miles away in Poole we all at Headquarters will watch the growing up of our newest family member with interest and for me it will always have a special place in my heart".

The then Commodore of Lough Swilly Yacht Club, Owen McGonagle wrote to the RNLI following the opening, to welcome the establishment of the lifeboat station.

He said: "The new lifeboat has definitely raised safety consciousness and people are reminded when they see it that sacrifices are made on their behalf. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the RNLI and all connected with the development.

“I am aware that James Kavanagh our National Organiser had a hand in it and also Mr and Mrs Pat Heaney of Fahan. They not only talked about doing something but actually achieved a great deal. I sincerely hope your organisation can maintain the service and continue to grow in those areas not already provided for.”

In 1992 Pat became Chairman of Lough Swilly Lifeboat Station, handing over the day to day running to Liam McGee, Barry Stevenson and Pat Carlin. Kate stepped down as SHS of fund raising and that job is done today by John McCarter.

 
 
 

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