A MAJOR rescue got under way yesterday after 87 sailing dinghies were hit by a sudden squall in Northern Ireland.
Ten sailors were injured and 97 people ended up in the water after boats capsized, with the casualties mostly suffering from hypothermia. Belfast coastguard was first alerted just before 2pm with reports that some of the boats had overturned, while others were struggling in strong winds and squally showers.
Sailors had been competing in the Boating World Championships GP14 event off Killy-leagh on the Strangford sea loch, a short distance from Belfast.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said all sailors were accounted for after a major- incident response and search and rescue swung into effect.
The Bangor and Portaferry coastguard rescue teams, the Portaferry and Newcastle RNLI lifeboats, and an Irish coastguard helicopter, along with a helicopter from RAF Valley, were sent to the scene.
“All those in the water have been accounted for. However, rescue units on scene, including the helicopters and lifeboats, are carrying out further searches to make sure,” the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said.
Strangford Lough is affected by powerful tides but is popular with watersports enthusiasts and a dedicated canoe trail has been laid out along its waters.
A hospital spokeswoman said ambulance crews were treating as many people as possible at the scene. One sailor was treated for head injuries.
A total of six people were transferred to hospital after the ambulance service set up tents to assess those who ended up in the water.
As the drama unfolded, the hospital spokeswoman said: “There were 97 people in the water.”
One of the competitors, Tom Daniel, 20, from Halifax in Yorkshire, said his boat overturned twice but that reports of the danger to sailors had been blown out of proportion.
“A massive squall came through, a lot of boats went over. We got very wet, a few got various knocks and bumps, but nothing serious,” he said.
“A bit further along the line, a lot of people went in because a massive squall came in and we ended up back in.
“We thought there was more damage than there was because a few people did look like they were struggling, but it is part of the sport.
“This would not normally attract much attention, but people from the shore saw there was damage and it has been blown out of proportion.”
Mr Daniel said the wind was not extreme. “The guys coped with it very. Most of the people out there knew exactly what they were doing – people capsize regularly.”
Experienced sailor Lucia Nicholson, from Sligo in Ireland, said some of the competitors had an extra sail, which could have made them more vulnerable to the squall.