Before the vessel slipped out of Haulbowline yesterday, Lieutenant Commander Eric Timon said his 59-strong crew, which includes two Army medics, had been preparing for the mission since January and was involved in “particularly intensive training” during the past month.
“Today I’m deploying on the Operation Pontus humanitarian mission. Should there be any rehatting [by switching in mid-mission to Operation Sophia] we are totally prepared.”
He pointed out that the Naval Service had many years’ experience in seizing arms and drug running vessels. The main objective of Operation Sophia is to target gangs using vessels for human trafficking.
“The skill sets we’ve learnt in the North Atlantic on a daily basis are very applicable (to Operation Sophia). We can switch in 24 hours,” the senior officer said.
“I’ve got a very good crew. They’re very well motivated and very well trained.”
He said he expects the ship will reach its area of operations in eight days’ time.
On the way, the ship will rendezvous with LÉ Eithne and he will receive a briefing on its mission, as well as conditions in the operations area, from its captain Commander Brian FitzGerald.
Six of the LÉ William Butler Yeats crew will be going on their second migrant rescue mission.
One of them is Lieutenant Stuart Donaldson, whose proud parents were there to see him off. His father, Liam, is a retired Naval Service commander who spent 39 years in the force.
“I’d love to be doing what he’s doing now. The biggest thing in my career was the rescue of Japanese tuna fishermen. I’m so proud of Stuart and the crew and of the Navy. We’ve all seen the harrowing scenes of people literally drowning in front of them,” he said.
Nicola Prodromou, 23, had travelled from Kilkenny to wave goodbye to her Ordinary Seaman boyfriend Michael Walsh.
“I’m so sad to see him go. I’m devastated. It’s like losing my left arm. I hope it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder,” she said, adding that she’s very proud of him.
Jessi Crowley from Ballincollig, Co Cork had come to see off her partner, Able Mechanic Brian Forde.
She said her son Jack, 3, thinks he’s going on a normal patrol and not one lasting three months.
However, she said daughter Jade, 12, was “devastated” and the first thing Jade would do when they got home would be to start making a ‘welcome home’ poster for Brian.
Ordinary Seaman Tomas Lester jnr will celebrate his 24th birthday on board the ship on August 16.
His mother, Eleanor, said they hoped to keep in touch with him through Facebook, while girlfriend Rebecca Mulcahy said she’s hoping he might be able to take a call from her on his special day.
Mother-of-three Trisha Hamilton wasn’t phased by the send-off. She’s seen it all before as her husband Alan has been on previous lengthy missions.
He spent five months in England watching LÉ William Butler Yeats being built “and knows every part of it,” which is just as well, as the chief petty officer will have to ensure the engines are ship-shape.
Flag Officer Commanding the Naval Service, Commodore Hugh Tully, said he’d “give his right arm” to be involved in such operations, as these opportunities weren’t available when he was a younger officer.
“That’s why we have no problems getting volunteers for the missions. It’s an exciting time for [the crews],” he said. He confirmed that plans have already been put in place to replace LÉ William Butler Yeats on the mission with LÉ Niamh.
Meanwhile, families also gathered in the parade ground yesterday to watch six new officer cadets being commissioned.
Minister with responsibility for Defence, Paul Kehoe, was on hand for both events.