Ten years on communities are still yearning for loved ones lost to the sea

Ten years ago this month, two boats sank off the south-east coast. Conor Kane and Stephen Rogers recall the tragedies that resulted in the loss of seven lives and united communities in grief.
Ten years on communities are still yearning for loved ones lost to the sea
Louise Doyle, partner of Pere Charles skipper Tom Hennessy, pictured in 2007 holding a photograph of the late fisherman.

We are an island nation and fishing is in the blood of so many of the men and women around our long, rocky, wind-battered, sometimes treacherous coast.

Too often treacherous, when the families of those men and women are touched by tragedy, the vessels carrying their loved ones don’t come home.

Ten years ago, the loss of two vessels within a couple of hours of each other in stormy weather off the south-east coast meant seven lives were lost, leaving seven families for whom nothing would ever be the same.

Those events touched so many. News initially emerged of the sinking of the Pere Charles with five crew members on board, just two miles from its home port of Dunmore East, and scarcely a day later the Kinsale-based Honeydew II went down.

The Honeydew tragedy resulted in the deaths of skipper Ger Bohan, aged 39, and crew man Tomasz Jagla, 31, with colleagues Viktor Losev and Vladimir Kostyr rescued.

The bodies of Ger Bohan and Tomasz Jagla were never recovered, just like those of the five who went down with the Pere Charles on January 10, 2007: skipper Tom Hennessy, 30, his uncle Pat Hennessy, 48, Pat Coady, 27, Billy O’Connor, 52, and Andriy Dyrin, 32.

The sinking of the Pere Charles was one of the worst Irish maritime disasters of modern times and its aftermath — the search for the herring-boat in bad weather, a succession of dives in ultimately fruitless attempts to locate the bodies, a campaign to have the trawler raised from the sea-bed, and the eventual salvage operation 10 months later which also ended up yielding no remains of any of the men — only served to make things worse for the bereft families.

“It’s a shock that it’s 10 years and still nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever been found,” Bernie O’Connor, daughter of Billy O’Connor, reflects today.

She was (and still is) living in Kerry when the horror unfolded, with the Pere Charles going missing while on its way back from a successful herring catch, and got her first inkling of what happened when she was in the car with her husband and got a call from her brother.

“He just said the boat that Dad was fishing in was after going down and that it was serious,” she remembers.

“We came home and it was on the news.”

Initially, the two liferafts from the Pere Charles were missing and the hope was that the five crewmen were on those rafts and alive, even the next morning when Bernie travelled to Waterford.

“Then they got the news that they found one liferaft, we heard it on the radio on the way to Dunmore East. Then we got word the other one that was lost had been found.”

That discovery extinguished much of the families’ hope.

Pat Hennessy, brother of Tom and nephew of crewman Pat, was at home in Kerry when news broke.

“I remember Bryan Dobson coming on the telly and they had a little ‘x’ on the chart behind him, off the Waterford coast, where the boat had gone down. My younger brother was with me at the time and just said, ‘Isn’t that where Tomaisín was fishing?’.

“I sort of passed it off at the time. A lot of the time these things are false alarms. But at the same time, I had a feeling in my gut there was something wrong.”

Before long, a phone call gave legs to that feeling, when they were told it was Tom’s boat that was down.

“They were only two miles off the shore so they were saying they’re on a liferaft and the lifeboat will go and get them and they’ll be grand. We jumped in the car and headed to Dunmore straight away.

“It was a long drive down but we arrived at the pier and we only put it together then that Pat was on the boat. He was fishing off a different boat and just headed out with them for the day to help them out. That was another shock.”

His initial hopes were shaken that night when the Coast Guard helicopter came ashore, along with the lifeboats and trawlers who had been out searching, and the families realised nobody was going to be found until at least the next day. Bad weather scuppered early searches for the Pere Charles until it was found on the sea bed a couple of days later, but again the winds and seas delayed dive operations and when those dives could take place, no trace of the men was found.

Over the following months, the families’ attentions turned towards having the trawler raised to the surface, in the hope that the bodies would then be found.

“I remember, it was the fourth of April,” Bernie O’Connor says, “I went up and was sitting in front of Pat The Cope Gallagher, who was the minister. Bertie Ahern was in government at the time. I remember saying, ‘If this was any of your families, you would be raising the boat’.

“At the time, the man from the salvage company was convinced that if the boat was lifted, there would be pockets of air and possibly some or all, of the bodies would be there.”

It was the following November before the operation took place, however, and Bernie says the delay scuppered any chance of the bodies still being present, given the ravages of the sea and its marine life.

“That was a savage blow,” Pat Hennessy recalls of the confirmation that none of the men’s remains were still on board when the Pere Charles was raised.

The last time Tom Hennessy was back at home in his native Kerry was around New Year’s Day in 2007, with his partner Louise and their two daughters, who recently spent the turn of the year with the Hennessys. “We were just saying, what would he be thinking about with his daughters getting older,” Pat says.

For the O’Connor family, the intervening decade has brought mixed fortunes. Bernie’s brother Dónal died five years ago, while her mother remains at home in Dunmore East, living with the memories.

“He was a great man who loved his family,” Bernie says of her father. “He was delighted with grandchildren. Unfortunately he never met mine but met my sister’s little boy.

“Christmas time is particularly hard for Mam because he loved Christmas so much. He would be going into town to buy the presents and going overboard with the decorations.”

Pat looks back on a brother and uncle who both loved life. “It was kind of an age of innocence. They lived for the craic and took every day as it comes, nothing too serious. I have very good memories of them.”

A decade later, “lost at sea is lost at sea”, he says and there’s nothing anyone can do about that. “In some ways the 10 years have flown by but in some ways it seems like a different lifetime.”

Honeydew II skipper had discussed Pere Charles sinking

Stephen Rogers

Just a few hours before his boat sank, and before he and one of his crew members died, Honeydew II skipper, Ger Bohan, was on the radio to a fellow captain nearby, discussing the tragic loss earlier that evening of the Pere Charles. It was January 11, 2007.

To hear that a vessel had gone down so close to them would have been chilling. They were stuck in torrid conditions and aware that, less than a year earlier, a skipper and crew member had been lost when the Maggie B had sunk in March, 2006. Any vessels at sea off the south-east coast that night faced a tough battle with the violent waves. The skipper of the Rachel Jay, which was 24km away and also caught in the conditions, asked Ger whether he would go into Dunmore East for the night.

But, according to a subsequent Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) report on the tragedy, the Honeydew II skipper replied that he would dodge the weather for the night and see what conditions were like in the morning.

He did, though, admit he was “burning 70 litres of fuel an hour just going into the weather”. It had been a disappointing day’s fishing. Since the crew — Ger Bohan, 39, Polish man, Tomasz Jagla, 31, and Lithuanians Viktor Losev, 47, and Vladimir Kostyr, 47 — had left Kinsale at just after 6am, no more than 10 full boxes of fish and 20 half-filled boxes had been caught by the Kinsale-based ship.

The best indication of the events of that night comes from the evidence of the two survivors.

By 11pm, the weather was bad, but Ger Bohan was not overly concerned. He finished his watch, with instructions to Vladimir Kostyr to call him at 3am. According to Mr Kostyr, the skipper went to bed at 12.30am.

The conditions, though, worsened after 2am, and by 2.45am Mr Kostyr had decided to call Ger Bohan. When the skipper came into the wheelhouse, he told his crew member to go below and get some rest, in spite of the weather.

However, as Mr Kostyr went to descend the stairs, he felt a powerful impact, which later turned out to be a massive wave breaking through the bulwark and an inrush of water which ultimately capsized the boat.

The other two men, Tomasz Jagla and Viktor Losev, were down in the mess room, and the skipper and Mr Kostyr urgently called them. Ger Bohan then began calling for help.

The crew members managed to cast off a liferaft, but while Mr Jagla swam to the entrance of it, he was unable to pull himself into it, because of a lifebuoy around him.

Mr Losev and Mr Kostyr got into the raft, just as the vessel capsized. Mr Bohan and Mr Jagla were never seen again.

The MCIB report suggested the men could only have survived a matter of minutes in the water temperatures.

Calls to the ship afterwards went unanswered and, at 5pm the following evening, the captain of the Rachel Jay sparked a formal search, when he told the Marine Rescue Coordination Centre that he had not had contact with the Honeydew II for 16 hours. An hour and a half later, the liferaft was found, thanks to a distress flare. Over the following days, debris, and then the wreckage of the trawler, were found, but there was no sign of the two other crew members.

The loss to the families of Ger Bohan and Tomasz Jagla was obviously huge and, in the weeks and months that followed, the local community rallied round them to offer what emotional and financial help it could.

The Polish man’s wife, Aneta, and two children, who had all been financially dependent on him, secured €400,000 in 2012, when they took a case against Mr Bohan’s insurers.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Department of Transport signed the Merchant Shipping (Safety of Fishing Vessels) (15-24 metres) Regulations.

MCIB said the implementation of those regulations would deal “with the causes of this casualty and the many other casualties of fishing vessels in the 15-24-metre length category”.

Sadly, it added: “However, it is noted that FV Honeydew II would have come within the scheme by October 1, 2010.”

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