RNLI volunteers are ordinary people whether it is accountants, firemen, joiners or telecoms engineers. They don’t look for glory or medals; they just go out and do the job they volunteered themselves for. One such volunteer was my grandfather Thomas “Tom” McGaffin who was a crew member of Portrush Lifeboat from 1984-1996 and deputy launching authority 1996-2007. Callouts for a lifeboat can be routine but there are ones that linger long in the memory. 13th February 1989 was one such rescue and is regarded as one of the most dangerous callouts experienced by a lifeboat crew.
RNLB Richard Evans, with crew Derek Chambers, Terry Murdoch, Tom McGaffin, Willie McAuley, Mark Mitchell, Chris Tinkler and Anthony Chambers; was launched in response to a distress call from the trawler Osako who had lost power and steerage when her propeller snagged a rope. This was routine but for the weather with hurricane winds of 120mph striking the North Coast, creating mountainous seas and the most dangerous conditions the crew had ever faced. The crew were all experienced but this was nothing they had ever experienced before. They sat in the harbour riding out waves after wave before the Coxswain Derek Chambers took his chance and powered the boat forward. A few seconds later a seventh wave struck sending the Richard Evans rolling and pitching, the crew could see nothing but a wall of water. As a result the second coxswain suffered two broken ribs that he had to endure until their rescue mission finished. The next wave submerged the boat entirely, Mark Mitchell’s account describes every “rivet and bolt” of the Richard Evans screaming in her attempt to reach the surface. Thanks to the shipwright’s skills she withstood the battering, resurfacing as she ploughed on towards Donegal.
Just as the crew finally managed to get out into open sea where the waves were more readable, a call came through on the radio saying that the trawler had been towed out of the sandbank by other fishing vessels and so the Richard Evans was recalled. However the crew could not turn towards home without the boat capsizing so they can no choice but to seek shelter in Greencastle. What would typically be a 45 minute journey home instead took three hours. When the faithful engines finally rested there was nothing but silence from the crew.
For 28 years Tom never discussed what happened aboard the Richard Evans other than saying it was a rough one. There is a famous photo of the Richard Evans hitting the wave that has become a symbol of the courage and dedication shown by the RNLI volunteers and Tom kept a copy which could be found hanging on the wall. When he was ill and dying from cancer, he happened to take a glance at the photo and started talking about it. It was the first and only time Tom said that he thought they wouldn’t be coming back.