I grew up near to the coast and as a result I’ve always loved the sea. I learnt to sail when very young and this helped me to develop a healthy respect for the sea. It has lots of fun to offer but sometimes, it holds surprises too.
I took to sailing like a duck to water. During my school days I used to spend every summer messing about in small boats that looked a bit like bath tubs. It was well-supervised fun and we learnt all the rudimentary skills required to race bigger boats. As a teenager, I won a prize of a week’s sail-training course on the ‘Asgard’, the original gun-running boat that earned itself a place in Ireland’s history. This boat leaked like a sieve but it didn’t spoil the adventure of sailing from Dublin port to Dartmouth in the south of England, calling in at various ports along the way. As time went on, I graduated to racing on bigger boats and often crossed the Irish Sea as part of a crew of keen sailors. I actually met my future partner-in-life on a boat as we shared a common love of sailing. We soon bought a small boat together and enjoyed many years of highly competitive sailing – think racing cars at speed, but on the water and you’ve got the right idea.
One summer evening we were out racing in a fleet of about 20 boats when we got the shock of our lives. As I’ve always had problems with my joints due to having Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), I used to helm the boat while my other half did all the hard work of keeping the boat well-balanced and doing all the frantic sail changes. It is also part of the crew’s job to keep a watch-out for other boats so that collisions are avoided. That evening my crew suddenly yelled at me to take avoiding action as he’d spotted an obstacle in the water. As we passed what we thought was a submerged log, we both fell silent. There was a white shoe clearly visible in the water. We looked at each other in horror as reality hit home and then quickly turned the boat around for another inspection. When we passed the shape in the water for a second time, we could clearly see a hairy leg attached to the shoe. Without hesitation we abandoned the race to stay with the body until further help could be summonsed. This left us with a bit of a dilemma as by this stage, the rest of the fleet had passed us by and the body was rapidly drifting out to sea on an ebbing tide. We had no choice but to tie a rope around the shoe with a marker buoy attached so that we could sail away towards a bigger boat to access a ship-to-shore radio – this all happened in the days before mobile phones. Once the lifeboat had been notified, we sailed back to our marker buoy and stayed in the vicinity to help the emergency services to locate the body. When we finally returned to shore we were met by a full turn-out of the emergency services as the body was brought ashore. We were asked to give detailed statements to the police before going home. Neither of us were able to sleep a wink that night due to the trauma of the experience. Today I can still clearly see in my mind, the sport logo on that white shoe.
We heard no more about this incident until one day, a letter popped through our letterbox at home. It was from the mother of the lad whose body we’d found at sea. Sadly, he’d taken his own life and his body had been missing for three weeks when found. His mother had managed to access our address from the emergency services as she wanted to thank us for the part we’d played in helping to bring closure to her family’s grieving. It was a very touching letter and a fitting end to a difficult experience.