Rookie sailor Christopher Hopcraft, 17, from Ballincollig, Co Cork, said he and his crewmates never feared for their safety as the Astrid struck rocks and began to sink.
“It was a good experience actually — I’d do it again tomorrow,” he said.
Christopher was one of eight Irish teenagers who were among 30 people plucked to safety from the historic sailing training vessel Astrid which struck coastal rocks and sank near the mouth of Oysterhaven bay in Cork just before noon yesterday.
He flew from Dublin to England last week with the other Irish sailors, some of whom have several years of sailing experience, to join the international crew on the vessel’s voyage from Southampton to Kinsale.
Flanked by his mother Siobhán and grandmother Pauline Keane outside Kinsale Yacht Club after the rescue, Christopher spoke of the moment he knew the boat was in trouble.
“I was just below deck and was about to go on watch when we noticed a fan in the corridor had started to slow down.
“Then we noticed the engine slowed down and then it stopped. Our mentors came down and said everyone needs to be on deck.”
The trainees donned life jackets and mustered on deck. The emergency services arrived as the ship began to sink.
“I could see we were drifting towards the rocks but I was never concerned for our safety. The guys on the lifeboat were very professional and the crew of the ship were very helpful. I am upset for Pieter, our captain, because he lives a lot on the boat and lost a lot of personal possessions.”
Rose Lynch, 16, from Gorey, Co Wexford, who has been sailing with Courtown Sailing Club since she was 9, said while crew members were frightened, everybody remained calm. “I actually thought we were going to make it.
“We were putting up our sails but it wasn’t our day — the wind was pushing us and the tide was pushing us towards the rocks. Then they started to hand out lifejackets and we sat down on deck. We just kept calm, chatting to each other, making jokes,” she said.
“Then the RNLI came and some jumped on to our life raft and we were transferred to a yacht and we were offered tea. We were all singing and just so happy that everybody was OK.”
Rose said the incident has made her appreciate the important things in life. “A lot of people were upset because they left laptops, passports, and money on board — but that’s all immaterial once we were safe, that’s all that matters.”
Her mother, Mary O’Driscoll, was driving to Cork when a friend phoned her to tell her about the unfolding rescue.
“I did trust that I’d see her again. The reunion was just wonderful, wonderful,” said Mary.
Daragh Comiskey, 17, from Co Wexford, phoned his mother from the deck of the stricken vessel to say it was sinking. She thought he was joking until she heard the commotion in the background. He thanked the emergency services for saving them.
Courtmacsherry RNLI coxswain Seán O’Farrell praised the quick-thinking of the skipper and his crew. “They kept calm and did everything we asked them to do. We were able to get them to safety quickly and a major tragedy was averted. To be able to recover 30 people safely was a great day for everyone involved.”
The swift response of emergency services helped avert a major tragedy off the Cork coast.
Irish Sailing Association (ISA) chief executive, Harry Hermon, who tried desperately to use his own boat to prevent the Astrid from hitting the rocks, said the co-ordination between the coastguard and the RNLI was “incredible”.
“This incident could have been a lot worse. But the co-ordination effecting the rescue was incredible — they did it in an amazingly quick time. From the time the skipper hailed he had a problem to the last person was lifted off the boat was about an hour.”
Mr Hermen was in a rib with the international media, who were recording The Gathering flotilla when the alarm was raised. The Astrid skipper hailed him about engine trouble and told him he was going to try and sail off the coast.
“I positioned my boat and tried to turn him around using my engine but I didn’t have enough power,” said Mr Hermon.
By now, the mayday had been raised and the emergency services were on the way.
Jim Grennan, pictured, was crewing the Kinsale inshore lifeboat which was on scene within seven minutes.
“There was a big swell and the ship was listing badly when we got there,” he said. “There was a seven foot difference between us and the deck of the Astrid so it was difficult to get people off the boat.”
He said the crew had been mustered on deck and were quite calm, and followed directions.
The RNLI crew used the swell to manoeuvre their inshore boat close to the Astrid and took survivors off one at a time. Other Astrid crew took to its life raft and were plucked from that by local boats. “Ten minutes after we got everyone off, the deck was under water,” said Mr Grennan.
The Astrid was built in 1918 as a lugger and up to about 1975 she carried cargo on the Baltic Sea. After a period of questionable practices under the Lebanese flag ending in a devastating fire, she came into British hands in 1984. Here, she was overhauled and got her impressive rigging for Atlantic crossings as a training vessel. Since, the Astrid was converted into a luxury vessel.
Yesterday’s rescue occurred just hours after a major exercise in and around Kinsale bridge involving the RNLI, the coastguard, gardaí, Red Cross, Civil Defence, and the harbour master and pilot to test the various agencies’ emergency planning and procedures.