Fishing trip that turned tragic

A “GARBLED message” just before 6am on a Sunday and lasting just over three minutes alerted Valentia marine rescue centre to the tragedy of the fishing vessel Tit Bonhomme.

The trawler, built 24 years earlier but re-engined five years ago, experienced technical difficulties two days into a five or six-day fishing trip for whitefish and prawns.

On its forced return to Union Hall port in the early hours of Jan 15 last year, the 21m-long vessel smashed into and became stranded on a rock, Adam’s Island, at the mouth of Glandore Harbour. It began to break up, with the eventual loss of five crew.

There was a sole survivor, Egyptian national Abdelbaky Abdelgawad (Abdo) Mohamad.

His brother Wael was one of three other Egyptians who perished along with the skipper, Michael Hayes, and 21-year-old, Kevin Kershaw, described as a “student visitor”, who joined the crew for the trip.

A Marine Casualty Investigation Board report revealed that on the Friday afternoon, when the vessel had left the West Cork port, it ran aground 400m out of Union Hall but was refloated by the tide.

Skipper and joint owner Hayes had undergone competency training with BIM while two of the crew, survivor Abdo Mohamad and his brother Wael, had completed basic personal survival techniques courses with the State body.

Kershaw and the two other crew members had no safety training.

The twin rig steel hulled trawler, built in France in 1988, had been re-engined four years before the tragedy. It also underwent a safety survey in 2009 but did not have a current radio survey or hold a ship’s radio licence.

The crew had planned to fish about 15 nautical miles south of Glandore Bay/Clonakilty Bay.

On day two, a Saturday, the weather deteriorated at about 7pm, with near gale force winds and rough seas.

The skipper was in the wheelhouse and Abdo Mohamad and his brother were working in the fish hold.

Abdo observed the level of bilge water in the fish hold was high and decided to pump the bilges. He requested the skipper to start the bilge pump but after an interval of some five minutes it was noted the level was not reducing.

The skipper changed over from the independently driven bilge pump to the auxiliary bilge pump, which is belt-driven, from the main engine.

The crew continued to work until 11pm and the vessel stopped at 11.23pm to facilitate repairs carried out by Hayes.

In the course of the bilge pump repairs, the skipper noted an oil leak from the main engine, came to the wheelhouse, and advised Abdo of the situation.

They went to the engine room at about midnight.

Abdo noted an oil leak from the top of a steel pipe attached to the attached lubricating oil pump. The skipper was unable to locate a replacement part.

At about 2am, the skipper decided to abandon the trip as fishing had been poor and they had about 42 boxes and several partial boxes on board.

The main engine was restarted about 2.14am and they got under way, initially at about 2 knots for 45 minutes while the oil leak was kept under observation. Speed was then increased to 4 knots.

Abdo Mohamad went to his bunk at 3am.

The cabin contained six berths, two upper and lower, port and starboard aft, and a single port and starboard forward.

Abdo Mohamad occupied the upper berth portside with Kevin Kershaw in the lower. On the starboard side the upper berth was occupied by Attiy Ahmed Shaban, the lower by Wael Mohamad.

The skipper’s cabin was fitted portside aft in the wheelhouse.

The investigation report said “it has not been possible to establish who was on watch at the time of the stranding”.

Abdo Mohamad was awoken some time later by a sudden bang to find the vessel rolling violently.

The crew members proceeded to evacuate the accommodation.

Kershaw and Shaban ascended to the main deck/galley and then to the wheelhouse via the internal portside companionway.

Abdo and his brother left via the starboard side-positioned emergency escape hatch to the main deck. The lighting failed at this juncture and the emergency lighting did not come on. It was noted that batteries were strewn all around. Wael crossed the main deck to the portside entrance to the galley.

Abdo decided this was too dangerous and went aft along the starboard side and gained the shelter deck via the ladder to the access hatch set in the shelter deck over. He entered the wheelhouse via the sole entrance at the after side and closed it behind him.

Everybody else was present. The skipper was wearing his personal flotation device, and was distributing life jackets to the crew from their stowage locker starboard side.

Kershaw was on his mobile phone but could not get a response to his attempts to make a 999 call. A line was eventually established and the skipper gave the vessel’s position. The call commenced at 5.49am.

Crew members were attempting unsuccessfully to activate the McMurdo handheld VHFs which they had found in a drawer.

The vessel was rolling heavily and violently. Suddenly the wheelhouse side windows were stove-in with an ingress of sea and glass.

Somebody shouted to open the door and let the water out. Abdo, standing just inside the door, part-fastened his lifejacket, opened the door, and was swept out on a swell.

He was a strong swimmer and struck away from the vessel in the darkness and confused sea conditions in a south-easterly strong to near-gale force winds, half flood tide, and sea water temperature of 10C.

He was located about two hours later by a Toe Head Coast Guard boat in a small cove outside Long Point and was winched to safety by helicopter.

An emergency response and recovery operation took 26 days to recover all of the bodies.

The report said: “This operation was very extensive and it involved a whole cross-section of State assets and services along with an unprecedented level of civilian volunteers from all over the country including fishing vessels, diving clubs, shoreline search patrols, Irish Search Dogs, kayakers, Irish Red Cross, community rescue boats and members of the general public.

“The local community in Union Hall and hinterland set up a marquee field kitchen on the pier which was operated and manned by the local community throughout the operation furnishing hot meals and refreshments to all concerned.”

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