Coastguard, lifeboats and Navy join forces for rescue exercises

The Coastguard, several lifeboat stations and the Royal Navy united for a search and rescue exercise off the coast of Co Down ahead of one of the busiest time of the year at sea.

HMS Tracker joined forces with the Belfast Coastguard and RNLI Bangor, Donaghadee and Larne stations for simulated rescues in the Irish Sea on Sunday.

The warship and lifeboat vessels searched for two dummies in the water, using wind and tide calculations to locate the simulated causalities.

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The Coastguard helicopter also took part in the effort, winching the dummies from the boats as they would in a live emergency to transport them to hospital.

Peter Irwin, volunteer lifeboat operations manager for Donaghadee Lifeboat Station, said it is the first time for a long time they had worked with the Royal Navy.

“Today was an exercise organised with the Coastguard, Royal Navy, Larne Lifeboat, Bangor Inshore Lifeboat, Donaghadee Lifeboat, and our scenario was we had a report of two different persons lost off vessels or off windsurfers,” he told Press Association.

“Larne and Bangor worked at the northern search area and Donaghadee and HMS Tracker worked in the southern search area.

“It is the first for a long time we have worked with the Royal Navy, and we were delighted when we were asked to take them on the search patterns with us – if at the end of the day there was a major search going on then every vessel has a requirement to join in a search so it was great to have the professionals of the Navy join us as volunteers and see how we do it on search patterns.”

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Mr Irwin said time is essential when reporting an emergency at sea, with the search area widening the more time passes.

“There are a number of factors, we first of all have to try and ascertain was it a swimmer, was it someone off a yacht, someone off a paddle board,” he said.

“What we find is that if someone is in the water, they drift more with the tide than the wind, if they are on a surf board or paddle board we then have to take into account the wind drift and tide as well,” he said.

“It’s very important for us to know the time the casualty went into the water, as we found out today by the time we were called on the exercise, it was just over two hours, and we found that the casualty to the north of Blackhead was some five miles away from where he went in and in the southern area at Donaghadee the casualty was some seven miles away from his point of entry.

“As a lesson to the public, it’s much better to call us very early, it narrows down the search pattern – if you imagine the search pattern like a large sector of pizza, the longer they are in the water, the wider the sector becomes so the search area greatly increases.

“We had a great exercise today with the Rescue 199, the Coastguard Rescue helicopter from Prestwick, she did a mock lift from the back of HMS Tracker which was incredible to see the guys working, and as more often than not, she was out and got called to a real life scenario, so had to leave when she was practising with the Larne Lifeboat.”

Mr Irwin said they have found there is no pattern to emergencies at sea and thanked all the volunteers with the RNLI.

“Last year we were running with 26 call outs, the year before we had 35, this year we are just on nine at the minute but we are coming into our busy time,” he said.

“One thing we have found is there no pattern. We were quite quiet up until two weeks ago, and then we had four over about a five day period. One trawler with a fire, one trawler taking on water so they were quite serious incidents.

“We just can’t tell, and because we are all volunteers, we always have to make sure volunteers are available and the boat is ready to go so great thanks to all our volunteers.”