The dreadful NAMA news that hit the nation like a bout-ending haymaker last Wednesday was announced around the same time Noel Dempsey declared his U-turn on the region’s Search And Rescue (SAR) provision.
While Brian Lenihan was addressing a Dáil full of long faces, Wexford kayakist Pat McGrath was in difficulty in the waters near Slade, an idyllic hamlet on the Hook Peninsula.
Right then, one can safely assume that Pat didn’t give a hoot about Sean Fitzpatrick, ‘Fingers’ Fingleton and the other toxic gamblers who have steered the good ship ‘’ onto the rocks.
Survival, warmth, his wife Caitriona and son Cillian were all that concerned Pat during that worrying, solitary episode, as his body grew colder and colder.
“If it wasn’t for R117 and her crew I was gone,” Pat told this column less than 48 hours after his rescue.
“If anyone ever starts thinking that (the SAR service is) only vital in daylight again they should remember what I was faced with and what would have happened without them. It was dark out at sea when I was picked up even though it was just after 5pm.”
Pat, an experienced seafarer, was aware of the grave danger he found himself in as the light began to fade over Hook Head.
“As a rescue diver I knew that I had hypothermia and what stage I was at and in reality if I hadn’t been picked up when I was I had, at best, another half hour or so of consciousness left,” he said.
Thankfully, as they’ve done for so many other people in difficulty since 2002, the tasked R117 crew located Pat, winched him aboard and flew him to Waterford Regional Hospital. “The feeling when I saw the helicopter (on Tuesday) can’t be put in words,” said a grateful Pat.
Most, if not all of us have fire alarms in our homes. If we leave our grub on the hob for too long, that alarm does what it’s designed to do.
And while fanning a newspaper beneath it to silence its deafening din might be a drag, it’s good to know the alarm is functioning, ready to perform its task should the unthinkable occur.
Knowing that there’s an SAR crew ready to react to an emergency anywhere within 200 nautical miles of Waterford provides that same feeling for many families, particularly for those who navigate our waters. Just ask Caitriona and Cillian McGrath.
Seeing the Sikorsky S61 above us, be it on a training exercise or when tasked for an operation, especially since the proposed cut was first mooted, provides an enormous sense of comfort and security.
Always ready, always willing and most able, the SAR crew’s stock has never been higher amongst the public, as the extraordinary campaign mounted on Facebook demonstrated.
Established by Wexford man Frank Flanagan, the ‘Save 24hr Search & Rescue Helicopter Cover in South-East’ demonstrated the efficacy of ‘people power’ in a manner unforeseen in the region in recent times.
The campaign conducted over the past month was clever, articulate, impassionate and penetrative, proving that ordinary everyday people can exert pressure on the powers that be.
And while local politicians who had their say on the issue in recent weeks will be equally glad of the SAR victory, the success for them is only through association.
For it was the people who voiced their displeasure, it was the people who rallied to the online cause spearheaded by Frank Flanagan and Liam Sinnott and it was the people who forced Noel Dempsey’s hand.
And now for a few SAR facts, accurate up to March 30th: The R117 crew completed 16 rescue missions during March, assisting eight people in difficulty.
In total, the Coast Guard Helicopter has completed 38 rescue missions since the turn of the year, some on fog-bound mountains, others over inclement seas.
Pat McGrath and all those assisted by the Waterford SAR crew have benefited from their expertise and commitment to the task at hand, be it at land or sea. The rest of us, as the Facebook campaign so brilliantly demonstrated, are simply grateful that they’re there.
* Pat and his family wish to thank the following for their efforts on March 30th: Wayne Fletcher (a good friend of Pat’s), the Lifeboats from Fethard, Kilmore and Dunmore East as well as John Kelly, John Anderson, John Nixon and Ian Doyle (Pat’s colleagues from Hook Sub-Aqua Club). “I can never thank them enough for their efforts,” said Pat. “I will never forget them and hope that I can help them some day in some way.”
Remember, in the event of an emergency, dial 999 or 112 and ask for the Coast Guard, who are, we’re delighted to state, available from Waterford Airport 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.