Disaster in Sligo Bay

Three men drowned, three saved in Boating Tragedy

By Gerry McMorrow

The Sligo Champion, Friday, July 14th 1972.

Rosses Point was numbed with shock and grief last weekend when three local men were drowned in one of the worst tragedies in Sligo Bay for many years.  The men, two of whom were in their twenties, were lost when their boat was overturned by a freak wave in the vicinity of Blackrock Lighthouse as they attempted to reach a stranded boat early on Sunday morning.  Three others who accompanied them were saved after they scrambled onto the reef of the lighthouse and sent up distress flares.

During a massive sea-air search, which was quickly mounted, the body of one of those drowned, James Leydon, a married man, was found. The search, on sea and along shoreline, continued all this week for the remaining bodies. Up to yesterday (Wednesday), however, nothing had been found.

Lost in the tragedy were - James Leyden, aged 58, who was Principal Light keeper of Eagle Island, off the County Mayo coast; Michael McLaughlin, 24, a seaman, who it is understood, was to be married in the Autumn and was to join a vessel of the Irish shipping Ltd. fleet in Hamburg this week; and Michael Kilgallon, 25, a former seaman who returned to Rosses Point about a year ago and had taken up farming.  All were natives of Rosses Point.

Rescued were Eddie McLaughlin, 56, Principal Light keeper of Blackrock Lighthouse and father of the drowned Michael McLaughlin. Kevin McGowan, 25, a van salesman of Rosses Point and Charles Townsend, aged 17 and a half, a student and son of Mr. C.G. Townsend, Cartron, Sligo, Managing Director of The Champion Publications Ltd., Sligo.

The drownings came after a day of drama at Rosses Point when three young men, who got into difficulties while lobster fishing, were rescued from the Blackrock. In fact Michael McLaughlin, who so tragically lost his life later played a hero's part in bringing these men ashore after their boat was thrown off the rocks by heavy seas.

On Saturday afternoon, 22-year-old Harry Ewing, of Rosses Point, nephew of well known local golfer, Mr. Cecil Ewing, went out lobster fishing in his recently purchased 28 ft. inboard motor powered boat. He was accompanied by an older brother, Richard, (25), and by a local teenager, Andrew Gillen.  Near the Black Rocks, which form the foundation for the lighthouse, their boat was caught in a heavy swell and thrown against the rocks. All three succeeded in scrambling onto the rocks and after breaking down the lighthouse door they sent up flares to raise the alarm.  These were spotted on both sides of the Bay and Michael McLaughlin went quickly to the scene, using Harry Ewing's old lobster fishing boat, a converted 20ft. rowing boat with an outboard engine. Single-handed he took the three stranded men from the lighthouse and brought them back to Rosses Point where Harry Ewing was taken to hospital for medical attention. Mr. Ewing had seven stitches inserted in a head wound.

Shortly after midnight, when the tide was full out, the party of six set out, again using Mr. Ewing's outboard motor boat, to retrieve the grounded lobster fishing vessel. It is understood they were to have been joined later by Tom Martin who was to help them tow the boat off the rocks.  The boat had almost turned around by the lighthouse when it was suddenly hit by a giant wave which rose quickly out of the dark, capsizing the boat and throwing the men into the water.At first, five men clung to the upturned boat but another wave struck and separated them again.

The oldest of the three survivors, Mr. McLaughlin, was weak at this stage but was helped to the boat by young Townsend who is experienced in life-saving drill and was supported on the boat by McGowan.  Then, in a forty-five minutes struggle against the sea, McGowan and Townsend propelled the boat through the water with their hands until they got close enough to the rocky island on which the lighthouse stands. There all three got ashore and again, the flares from the lighthouse were used to raise the alarm.

After an incident like this, it is naturally difficult to piece together the sequence of events, but in an attempt to trace the tragic story I talked this week to two of the survivors and some of those who helped in the rescue operation.  At his home on Monday, young Townsend recalled how, as they set out the Bay in darkness to recover the boat, they commented on how calm the sea was.

"As we went round the lighthouse we kept the customary 150 to 200 yards off shore", he said. "Suddenly, Mickey McLaughlin said 'look out' and just at the same time a wave hit the boat broadside, turning it over and throwing us into the sea. I swam back to the boat which was overturned but still floating and saw four people hanging on to it. Then another wave washed down over the boat and scattered us all.  When I came up I found three people hanging onto me and I let myself go under. They let go and when I touched bottom I pushed myself upwards. When I broke surface I caught the nearest man to me by the neck - it was Edward McLaughlin - and as we made for the boat it was brought nearer on a wave. At this time I saw Michael Leyden holding onto a buoy. I didn't see Michael Kilgallon at all.

"A faint cry for help came from the direction of the lighthouse and I went to the bow of the boat. As the boat went towards the rocks I saw Michael McLaughlin and put out my leg which he grabbed. I brought him in as far as the boat and was trying to secure him between me and the boat when another wave hit and he disappeared.

"I suggested then to Kevin McGowan and Edward McLaughlin that we'd say a decade of the Rosary while holding to the boat and we did. This helped our morale and gave me time to think what to do next. McGowan and I then kicked with our feet and paddled with our hands, not so much to get ashore at the lighthouse but also to keep the circulation going".

At this stage a wave threw the boat closer to the rocks and with a rope around his neck, young Townsend swam about thirty yards to the shore. There he began to haul in the boat. A wave dragged the boat out and knocked him down but he got up again and dragged it in. It was helped by a wave and the other two men found they could stand.  Townsend then ran across about seventy yards of rocks to the lighthouse and went to the top where he found the flares - three remained after what was used earlier.  While Kevin McGowan sent up a flare, Townsend helped McLaughlin, who was weak, by pushing him up the steps of the lighthouse ahead of him. Inside, McLaughlin was put sitting on boxes and Townsend found flags to cover him.

"We had used the final flare when Kevin Murray came in his launch and circled the rocks", young Townsend said. "He started to turn and we knew there was no hope of him being able to land. He turned into Rosses Point and a half-hour later came out accompanied by Tom Martin in Frank Feehin's boat. A rubber dinghy was launched from Murray's boat and Alan Murray came in and brought us back to the launch".

While in the lighthouse he saw Mickey McLaughlin's body on the rocks but it was washed away again. At no time did he see Jim Leyden.

Townsend, who learned life-saving drill at Summerhill College, Sligo, under local swimming instructress, Mrs. Sybil Higgins, has won four personal survival awards including the advanced grade and has been a member of the Summerhill College team which won the Connaught life-saving championships three years in succession.

"Swimming wasn't of much use to me out there. It was more a matter of treading water and knowing what to do", he commented.

It is understood none of the other five men knew how to swim and at his home in Rosses Point on Tuesday, Kevin McGowan told how he survived.

"It was pitch dark when we set out at about 12.45 a.m.," he said. "Mickey Kilgallon and I were in front, Charles Townsend and Eddie McLaughlin were in the middle, and Michael McLaughlin was at the back working the engine with Jim Leyden".

"We were cutting around the lighthouse on the Raughley side and we in front were looking out for rope in the water from lobster pots in case it would catch in the engine, using a torch."

"All of a sudden I heard what sounded like thunder coming and just an instant before it struck I saw a wave about ten to fifteen foot high. It was a cocks comb wave, a type which gets up very quickly. The boat was broadside to the wave and there were a few shouts and screams and the boat tumbled right over on the wave.

"I couldn't swim and I think only Townsend and possibly Jim Leyden could. Everyone was in the water. I came up under the boat and was trapped inside the upturned boat, hitting my head on the floor and was nearly going to stay there and prepare for the worst.

"I decided then to fight for it and got out under the side of the boat and caught the keel of the boat. I couldn't see Jim Leyden at all but all the others were there. The waves washed over us about twenty times and I lost my grip a few times but because the wave brought the boat along also I was able almost to get a last grab before I went down again.

"The second time I came up I could only see the three of us. I kicked off my wellingtons which were weighing me down a lot. All we could do was hang on hard for our lives".

At this stage the men noticed the boat was drifting away from the rocks and they paddled with their feet and hands to try to get to the rocks. Eddie McLaughlin was "in a bad state at this time" but was right beside McGowan who raised him up whenever he began to slip. Townsend was on the opposite side of the boat.

They prayed while they were on the boat and at one stage McGowan heard Michael McLaughlin's cry for help but could not see him.

"The boat hit the rocks a few times, because there was a danger of holes I kept shouting to hold on", he continued.

"At one stage Townsend got off and grabbed hold of a loose rope and pulled the boat in. I stayed on the boat until she got a good grip because Eddie couldn't really move. I then got off and Eddie made a go and I got hold of him and pulled him up a wee bit. Townsend helped me get him up on the rocks.

"The waves were still coming over us and threw me down once. There were ropes around Eddie's legs and I took the ropes away and took off his boots, which I had not seen until then. I was completely weakened at this stage but managed to drag him along the rocks. As I was doing so I noticed a light come on in his clothes. I searched and found a torch in his pocket. This showed us where there were holes.

"Townsend helped Eddie up the lighthouse steps and we got flares. There were lights on the shore shining in the water. When I let off the first flare I got lights back. Then I used the small torch to send out a SOS but I don't think they could read it too well. I then set off a second and third - the final - flare.

"We had been about three-quarters of an hour in the water and were soaking and freezing - our teeth were nearly going through our gums - and we were exhausted. Eddie was in a desperate state and we were worried about his condition. He didn't know my name and didn't know who had been drowned".

"When we were in the lighthouse I felt there was no hope for the others. Nothing had saved us but being able to hold onto the boat. While in the water Eddie and I kept shouting for the boys to come to the boat".

Kevin McGowan was a seaman for about three years but returned home three years ago and is employed as a van salesman by Messrs. Donnelly.

The story of the rescue was itself laden with drama and incident.

Paddy O'Donnell, of Rosses Point, said he had talked to Jim Leyden before the party set out and Leyden said the only thing worrying him was that they might not be able to move the boat. The party had arranged that Tom Martin would bring out Frank Feehan's boat at about 5 a.m. to tow off the stranded boat.

"We were talking at the Sailing Club and I noticed a buoy and told him to take it as they might need it for lines. I thought there were only five in the boat and didn't know Kilgallon was there - it was dark, of course.

"I asked Eddie McLaughlin to flash me a light and I said I would look out for them. He said they would flash a light when they landed. As they went out I flashed the car lights and they gave me the torch light back at intervals. They headed directly towards Raughley but when I saw the light moving over I felt they had turned too soon.

"I lost the light for a while. I flashed and got the light again. Again I lost it and I felt they must be at the back of the lighthouse. After a while I saw a light close to the lighthouse and assumed they had landed. As I was driving back down the village I thought I saw in the rear mirror a bright flash. Some teenagers told me they had seen two rockets and Bertie Kivlehan arrived from the Lower Rosses to say he had heard the rocket. We looked out and we could still see a light at the lighthouse. I then decided to call Mr. Murray.

"I had come back from his boat, the Chum V1 earlier in the night and with Bertie Kivlehan we went out to Mr. Murray at about 2.30 a.m."

Mr. Murray, who had gone to Rosses Point earlier in the day and had gone to aid the party stranded earlier, was tied up at the buoy outside the Sailing Club for the night and had gone to sleep.

"I had made arrangements with Paddy O'Donnell to call for us for Mass in the morning and he had taken our punt into shore", said Mr. Murray. "At about 2.30 a.m., O' Donnell and Bertie Kivlehan knocked us up. They said rockets had been seen and we assumed a second boat was in distress. We went to sea and as we approached the lighthouse we put the searchlight beam on the lighthouse. The sea was running fairly high and though we had a dinghy it was not suitable and we had nobody to put ashore in it. I decided it was best to come to Rosses Point and on the way in I contacted our house by radio.

"They had been alerted and had been in fact trying to raise us. The Gardai were in touch with them and the Post Office gave us an open line".

Mr. Murray's son, Alan, who then left home and went aboard the launch at Rosses Point taking with him the Sailing Club rescue craft without the outboard engine.

The Innismurray, with Tom Martin in charge, and with Desmond Finnegan and Richard Ewing on board, also turned back to tow with them a smaller boat for landing but headed out with the Chum V1 and stood by.

Mr. Kevin Murray held his launch about 100 yards off shore in 25-30 feet of water and Alan, in a wet suit and life jacket, rowed in under quite hazardous conditions to the lighthouse.

"From the boat we saw one man appear, then a second and a third. We assumed only five were out and two were missing but when we got the men aboard we got the story and found three were missing". Mr. Murray said.

"The old man collapsed when we got him on board but we kept in radio contact with the house and Mr. Denis Boland, Surgeon, Sligo, gave us medical instructions over the radio. When we arrived back in Rosses Point the ambulance was waiting to bring him to hospital".

Mr. Murray was also in contact with the Village Maid which came from Sligo, under Mr. John Carton. As he was passing Mr. Murray got a message from the shore - another son was using a walkie-talkie on the strand - that an object had been seen floating near the swimming pool. Mr. Carton could not get close enough in his boat and Paddy O'Donnell went to recover it - it was the body of James Leyden.

Also on the scene within a short time was a helicopter from Baldonnell and the lifeboat from Arranmore, and an air-sea search was started.

Mr. Murray decided to return again to the Lighthouse and Paddy O'Donnell and Alan Murray landed where they were joined by Mr. Austin Gillen, of Rosses Point. A search was carried out but there was no sign of wreckage or of a body on the rocks.

All along Rosses Point Strand, from the Swimming Pool to the Golf Links, there was wreckage from the second boat and the search was concentrated in this area.

During Sunday the search was continued with Mr. Murray's boat, two boats manned by members of Sligo Sailing Club, and the life-saving boat, in charge of Mr. Sean Foy and the Strandhill Beachguard, Mr. Stan Burns, taking part.

By an uncanny tragic quirk of fate, last weekend's drownings occurred exactly two years to the day and date after another boating tragedy at Rosses Point which claimed six lives.

Lost then - on Saturday, 8th July 1950 - were three local men, Gerry Doherty, Martin McGowan and Jack Feeney, together with a Dublin man, Michael Kennedy, and two Swiss nationals employed at a local hotel.

The tragedy happened as they were crossing from Rosses Point through a fast flowing channel to Coney Island.