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How the Missing Galway Bay Paddleboarders Were Found by Fishermen

14th August 2020
Fishermen Patrick and Morgan Oliver who located the missing paddleboarders being accompanied by Galway RNLI Crew into Galway Harbour Fishermen Patrick and Morgan Oliver who located the missing paddleboarders being accompanied by Galway RNLI Crew into Galway Harbour Photo: RNLI Galway

When Helen Feeney took a photo of her daughter, Sara (23), and niece Ellen (17), off Furbo beach on the northern shore of Galway Bay, the pair were happy out on stand-up paddleboards.

It was a bright warm summer’s evening, just a little after 9 pm on Wednesday. The two women were wearing swim gear, but not wetsuits. Fortunately, they had buoyancy aids.

As the Irish Examiner reports, Helen, who had her dog with her on the shore, noticed they seemed have gone a little too far out for comfort. This was to be a “short trip”. Initially, she put her anxiety down to her own cautious nature.

As darkness fell, that anxiety grew. Within the hour, she had phoned her sister Deirdre, Ellen’s mum, and her husband, and the Irish Coast Guard. As she told RTE Radio’s Drivetime yesterday evening, these were “two very smart sensible girls”.

The hours in between were “horrific”, she recalled. A full-scale air-sea search was initiated after 10 pm, co-ordinated by Valentia Marine Rescue Sub-Centre in Co Kerry. The wind was northerly, and picking up, and weather conditions were deteriorating.

By the time, the RNLI’s Aran island and Galway city lifeboats put to sea, visibility was poor and there was heavy rain, thunder, and lightning, according to RNLI Galway operations manager Mike Swan.

The focus initially was on inner Galway Bay, but by daylight, it had extended right across to the Clare coast and Black Head. During the long night, a rotation of Irish Coast Guard helicopters from Shannon, Waterford and Sligo, and the Doolin and Costello Bay Coast Guard units joined the lifeboat crews.

The Civil Defence, local fishermen, anglers, leisure craft and hundreds of shore searchers were out by daylight, as were pilots with Galway Flying Club, Aer Arann, and the Oranmore-Maree coastal search volunteers.

Fisherman Patrick Oliver, one of the Galway Oliver family born with salt in their blood, knew that if the wind had gone north-easterly anything that drifted would be out towards the mouth of the bay and the Aran Islands. Onboard with him was his son Morgan (18) in their seven-metre catamaran potting vessel, Johnny Ó.

The Oliver family are heavily involved in Galway RNLI lifeboat and Galway Sea Scouts, with Patrick’s brothers Ciaran and Dave being coxswains, and Patrick being a member of the shore search team.

Ciaran’s son and Patrick’s nephew, Sean Oliver, was just 14 years old when he and fellow Galway Sea Scouts pulled a man from the river Corrib during the Macnas parade in October 2018.

It was Morgan who spotted the movement two miles south-west of Inis Oírr.

“They were waving their paddles at us,” Patrick said later. The two women were sitting on their paddleboards, holding onto a float attached to lobster pots, and to each other.

They were weak, exhausted, but well able to express their delight at being found. They told the Olivers they had seen the lights of the Aran islands and tried to reach the shore, but couldn’t make it.

They had been over 15 hours at sea, and over 17 nautical miles from their original location, when they were found.

Back on the beach at Furbo, there had been initial word that two bodies had been located. Minutes later, there was a shout as Ellen’s father, Johnny Glynn of Galway United Football Club, threw his arms up in the air.

“They’re alive!” he roared, as he ran over to his wife Deirdre Feeney, and younger daughter Alice (12), dropping to his knees in relief.

"I'm so happy,” he said afterwards. “I had given up. How could they be in the water from 9.30?”

Patrick and Morgan Oliver rooted out jackets, towels, whatever they could find to wrap the two women up on the deck of their catamaran.

The two women were “chatting away on deck”, they told Mike Swan back at the RNLI Galway station as they headed into Inis Oírr.

Both women were fit enough to walk up the pier before an Irish Coast Guard helicopter flew them into University Hospital Galway to check them out for hypothermia.

The buoyancy aids helped, but staying together and staying with their paddleboards had been crucial – along with keeping calm, Patrick Oliver said.

“That’s the danger with them blow-ups [paddleboards],” he said. “when the wind is offshore, the wind can carry them out to sea.”

Breda Feeney, an aunt, was in tears of joy, and family members hugged each other as the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter landed at the hospital helipad.

“Knowing the two girls, they are very strong and resilient,” she said.

"We are forever indebted," she said.

Experienced Galway sailor Pierce Purcell paid tribute to the “phenomenal effort”, and said that sailors would “never complain about lobster pots getting in the way again”.

Irish Coast Guard divisional controller John Draper said that sea temperatures were about 15 degrees, but if they had been in the water, and not on their boards, it could have been a “different story”.

More from the Examiner here

Published in Galway Harbour
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

Email The Author

Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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Galway Port & Harbour

Galway Bay is a large bay on the west coast of Ireland, between County Galway in the province of Connacht to the north and the Burren in County Clare in the province of Munster to the south. Galway city and port is located on the northeast side of the bay. The bay is about 50 kilometres (31 miles) long and from 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) to 30 kilometres (19 miles) in breadth.

The Aran Islands are to the west across the entrance and there are numerous small islands within the bay.

Galway Port FAQs

Galway was founded in the 13th century by the de Burgo family, and became an important seaport with sailing ships bearing wine imports and exports of fish, hides and wool.

Not as old as previously thought. Galway bay was once a series of lagoons, known as Loch Lurgan, plied by people in log canoes. Ancient tree stumps exposed by storms in 2010 have been dated back about 7,500 years.

It is about 660,000 tonnes as it is a tidal port.

Capt Brian Sheridan, who succeeded his late father, Capt Frank Sheridan

The dock gates open approximately two hours before high water and close at high water subject to ship movements on each tide.

The typical ship sizes are in the region of 4,000 to 6,000 tonnes

Turbines for about 14 wind projects have been imported in recent years, but the tonnage of these cargoes is light. A European industry report calculates that each turbine generates €10 million in locally generated revenue during construction and logistics/transport.

Yes, Iceland has selected Galway as European landing location for international telecommunications cables. Farice, a company wholly owned by the Icelandic Government, currently owns and operates two submarine cables linking Iceland to Northern Europe.

It is "very much a live project", Harbourmaster Capt Sheridan says, and the Port of Galway board is "awaiting the outcome of a Bord Pleanála determination", he says.

90% of the scrap steel is exported to Spain with the balance being shipped to Portugal. Since the pandemic, scrap steel is shipped to the Liverpool where it is either transhipped to larger ships bound for China.

It might look like silage, but in fact, its bales domestic and municipal waste, exported to Denmark where the waste is incinerated, and the heat is used in district heating of homes and schools. It is called RDF or Refuse Derived Fuel and has been exported out of Galway since 2013.

The new ferry is arriving at Galway Bay onboard the cargo ship SVENJA. The vessel is currently on passage to Belem, Brazil before making her way across the Atlantic to Galway.

Two Volvo round world races have selected Galway for the prestigious yacht race route. Some 10,000 people welcomed the boats in during its first stopover in 2009, when a festival was marked by stunning weather. It was also selected for the race finish in 2012. The Volvo has changed its name and is now known as the "Ocean Race". Capt Sheridan says that once port expansion and the re-urbanisation of the docklands is complete, the port will welcome the "ocean race, Clipper race, Tall Ships race, Small Ships Regatta and maybe the America's Cup right into the city centre...".

The pandemic was the reason why Seafest did not go ahead in Cork in 2020. Galway will welcome Seafest back after it calls to Waterford and Limerick, thus having been to all the Port cities.

© Afloat 2020

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