The interior of the Bonmahon Inshore Lifeboat Station offers a potted history of the invaluable search and rescue service it has provided along the Waterford coast since its foundation in 1986.
From certifications and commendations to newspaper clippings, from letters of thanks to memories of sadly missed neighbours and members, this wall represents 34 years of rescues, recoveries and friendships.
“We’re all in the same boat here in more ways than one,” lifeboat crew member Aoife Mooney tells me. “It’s a lovely group to be part of; we’ve a real sense of togetherness when it comes to what we have to do. Some days are an awful lot tougher than others given the demands of search and rescue but those days are easier to manage when you’re part of a team like the one we have here. We’re all involved in this because we want to do it, not because we have to do it. And that to me is a big thing. We all want to be here.”
PJ O’Shea has been involved with the Bonmahon Lifeboat since its establishment. His passion for the nature of this often-difficult line of coastal activity is immediately palpable. PJ exudes calm, just the sort of attitude someone in difficulty would be undoubtedly grateful for amidst a maritime emergency.
“We were holidaymakers here when this started,” he said. “I’d come from diving and going out there (to sea) every so often to haul someone in out of it was getting a bit tiresome so we put a few heads together and everything you see here now (the fully equipped station) is what ultimately come out of it.”
A Lifeguard Club (as illustrated by the station’s front wall signage) was initially formed, providing a weekend lifeguard service for the locality between 1986 and 1989.
In July 1990, 14-year-old Paul Hanrahan from Grangemockler, South Tipperary, drowned at Bonmahon. This was followed by an upgrading of the service the following year to a full-time status, “never done before anywhere in Ireland and probably never will be done again,” said PJ.
Following a major fundraising drive, a lifeboat vessel named in Paul’s honour was put on station at Bonmahon, serving the area from early 1991 up to 2000, before being replaced by the Paul Hanrahan II, which was in service until 2012. The lifeguard element of the service was handed over to Waterford County Council in 2011, a service which they maintain to this day.
“In 1990, there was no boat at Helvick – the nearest boat was Tramore – and even though we had a small RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) at the time, it wasn’t sufficient given how busy this area was getting at the time with holidaymakers so it’s all here now since that time,” said PJ.
The Lifeguard Club also runs a Powerboat School in addition to Lifesaving and swimming classes at Tramore’s Splashworld (from September to May) with the latter greatly enhancing the water safety savvy of the area’s younger residents.
During the lockdown, Bonmahon and the Copper Coast area was effectively shut down as lifeboat crew member Derek O’Neill explained. “It was unbelievably quiet; people by and large just did what they were told when it came to the guidelines. There were a couple of cliff incidents that the Coast Guard had to deal with but as PJ put it there, sure we’re lucky when we don’t have a problem and hopefully it will stay that way for the rest of the summer when there’s more people around, which there’s bound to be.”
In-house procedures during the lockdown were inevitably impacted by the pandemic. A maximum of four crew members have been permitted inside the station during maintenance checks.
‘We’ve never missed a deadline’
When it comes to emergency response, a crew complement of three (with a maximum of four “and one other” as PJ put it) is required for any launch. The boat is in the water within 15 to 20 minutes of the alarm being raised “and we’ve never missed a deadline, ever”, said PJ. Derek added: “There’s other days and nights here when we’d be out between five and 10 minutes.”
Upon returning to base for washdown, everything has to be disinfected and as things stand, mouth to mouth resuscitation cannot be administered (“bag to mouth has to be done by the professionals, you need specialist training for that”).
Changes to the handling of casualties, on the basis of direction from the Coast Guard, are likely and may well be subject to further amending in due course. Naturally enough, regular training for the crew was suspended during the lockdown, which also negatively impacted on the service’s equipment.
An annual Coast Guard grant, in addition to monies raised via the Splashworld classes, corporate sponsorship and other fundraisers, help to maintain the Bonmahon service.
While matters have been somewhat more benign of late locally, the crew has encountered many a sad day when their primary objective was recovery as opposed to rescue. Strength in numbers is always a help on such operations, a sentiment all I spoke to at the Station nodded in agreement on.
Said PJ O’Shea: “There’s been some very tough ones over the years alright. We have our own debriefing after every event but when you’re dealing with young children, especially when we know them – and we’ve known a number of them from this area who’ve lost their lives. One of the last calls we had here was an uncle of one of our helmsmen – Seamus (O’Reilly) – that was hard because we all knew him very well. But that’s the kind of situation you’re going to encounter from time to time in an area like this where you’re part of a group that responds to emergencies.”
A proud record since 1986
A small picture frame features the total number of rescues the Bonmahon crew has been responsible for since 1986: 104. Three a year, roughly. “Bringing back someone, one way or the other, that’s the whole thing,” said PJ. “We’ve never left anyone behind us – and that’s a hell of a record in that time.”
“We’re all here to help,” said Derek O’Neill. “That’s what this is all about. It’s nothing to do with any of us being heroes or upstaging anyone.”
The crew is deeply appreciative of those who quietly support its work, be it engineering firms, electricians, plasterers and painters, all of whom chip in when called upon to do so. “They never fail,” commented Derek. “Without that support in the background and without the quiet support and loyalty of people here in the village, an organisation like this just wouldn’t survive.”
For further details, visit https://www.facebook.com/bonmahon.lifeboat/