Ferocious squall skittles sailors: decision to race in Strangford Lough defended by Co Down yacht club after big rescue operation
A Co Down yacht club has defended its decision to run a race which narrowly avoided descending into a major disaster.
There was chaos yesterday afternoon during the GP14 World Championship yacht race in Strangford Lough when a sudden squall capsized several boats with around 20 people – including several children – ending up in the water.
Earlier updates provided by the South Eastern Health Trust claimed that 95 people had been in the water.
However, following the end of the incident, the coastguard confirmed that 20 went overboard.
A major rescue operation was staged from around 2pm, and completed by just after 4pm.
The Irish Coast Guard sent a helicopter from Dublin while a second was sent from RAF Valley in Wales to help the Bangor and Portaferry Coastguard rescue teams and the Portaferry and Newcastle RNLI lifeboats with the effort.
The Ulster Hospital declared a major incident as it awaited the arrival of casualties.
In the end, only two people sustained minor injuries while many more were reported as suffering from hypothermia.
The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (NIAS) set up first aid tents at the scene. NIAS spokesman John McPoland said it was very fortunate that no-one was seriously injured.
Liam Colquhoun, watch manager at Belfast Coastguard, described the weather conditions on scene as "pretty treacherous, with winds gusting up to 60mph".
"We're very thankful that everyone has now safely returned," he said.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers commended the rescue workers.
"My thoughts are with everyone involved in the incident in Strangford Lough," she said.
"I wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured.
"I commend the emergency response teams for their commitment and professionalism.
"They did an amazing job in getting everyone to safety."
The GP14 world championship event sees one of the biggest fleets of single class two-person dinghies ever assembled in Northern Ireland.
With a strong international following, the week-long event has attracted about 200 competitors, some from as far away as Australia.
A practice session on Sunday had been cancelled because of high winds, but a spokesman for East Down Yacht Club yesterday told the Belfast Telegraph that they were happy enough that Monday's event went ahead.
"This is a world championship event; we are not dealing with amateurs, these are people who know what they are doing," he said.
In a statement, the yacht club said yesterday was the first day of the event, which started at 12pm in wind speeds of 17 knots with 88 boats taking part.
However, towards the end of the first race, the Race Officer decided that because of the worsening weather conditions the second race of the day would be cancelled.
"The signal for the race cancellation was displayed and the safety boat crews were informed that racing for the day was finished," the statement said.
"The fleet started to head ashore when a strong squall of 31 knots came over the race area.
"The effect of this was that some of the GP14 boats capsized. This is not an unusual situation and crew are trained on how to 'right' their boat.
"Unfortunately, a further stronger squall registering 37 knots followed the first, capsizing a further number of the fleet."
The yacht club insisted in its statement that no more than 10-12 boats were capsized at any one time. "The Race Officer then made the correct decision, as a precaution, to contact the Coast Guard should the weather conditions worsen and, in fact, the weather conditions improved after 15 minutes.
"Apart from two competitors with suspected broken limbs, no one in the event was seriously injured, other than minor scratches, cuts and bruises, consistent with the sport at this level."
- The Exe Sails 2014 GP 14 World Championships began on Sunday with a practice day at East Down Yacht Club.
- Yesterday was the first day of racing, with two races scheduled.
- The championship continues until Friday with two races each day. Tomorrow has been designated a spare day to accommodate races that might be postponed or cancelled.
- The biennial world championship was staged in Looe, Cornwall, in 2012 and will be held in Barbados in 2016.