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'I was in a tiny boat on my own. It started filling with water.. I was scared and crying' - SURVIVOR SIAN KNEAFSEY, AGE 12; TERROR AT KIDS SAILING REGATTA.

Byline: By MICHELLE O'KEEFFE, CLAIRE O'BOYLE, LYNN JOLLY and MAURICE FITZMAURICE

AT least 110 children were rescued from the sea yesterday after their boats capsized in high winds.

The terrified youngsters fell into choppy waters in Dublin Bay at Dun Laoghaire during a junior boat race.

Around 12 of the 91 small vessels were overturned by a squall reaching speeds of 28 knots at around 2pm.

The emergency rescue operation involved gardai, 31 ambulances, lifeguards, helicopters and Irish Navy ship the LE Aoife which was on patrol at the time.

Horrified parents also took to boats in the harbour to pluck youngsters to safety.

It is believed 20 children were missing for some time but when found had suffered only minor injuries.

Last night it emerged Irish weather forecaster Met Eireann issued a warning two hours before the gust to keep all small boats out of the sea.

It said winds could rise to Force Seven - up to 33 knots-during yesterday afternoon.

But the regatta, organised by Dun Laoghaire's Royal St George Yacht Club, still continued.

A Met Eireann spokeswoman said the warning was put out on radio weather bulletins throughout the afternoon. It was also on its website.

The spokeswoman added: "I wouldn't want to make anyone feel any worse about this than they probably already do but you would think they would check weather warnings before they put 100 children on to the sea in little boats.

"I would not say it was a freak wave that capsized the boats. It would have been expected given the weather forecast."

One of Ulster's most promising young sailors was caught up in the incident.

Tiffany Brien, 16, from Holywood, Co Down, and her sister Jessica had made it to the shore before the squall blew in but their 10-year-old brother Jack was in a boat that capsized.

Their dad Simon told the Daily Mirror: "Jack was in an Optimist class boat and if they swamp they are very hard to get back up again - especially for a young fella. With such a strong wind coming across the bay it would be even harder to get your boat upright again.

"But he was rescued and the last time I spoke to my wife he was off to hospital for a check-up. I think they took the younger ones off first in case they had swallowed water or whatever.

"Tiffany and her sister had completed their races and even come first and third when all this happened. They are both fine but obviously it could have been a lot worse. Luckily there were a lot of rescue boats about."

Sian Kneafsey, from Dartry in Dublin, was saved from the rough waters.

The 12-year-old said: "I was really scared and was crying. When we went into the water the conditions were fine but within five or 10 minutes the wind got really strong and the waves got big.

"I was in the boat on my own as it is quite small, like a dingy. It started filling up with water and I was trying to empty it out of the boat.

"I have capsized before so I knew what to do but it was still really frightening."

Her brother Conor said they were also meant to join in the regatta but were told they were not allowed due to the conditions.

The nine-year-old added: "Level one and two were meant to be involved in that part of the regatta but we were not allowed. But the higher levels were still able to take part."

A Coast Guard spokesman said 110 children were saved less than 2km from shore.

All were under-16 and mainly members of four Dublin yacht clubs. Ambulances took 14 children and one adult to hospitals to be treated for shock, exposure and minor concussion.

Around 190 people were treated at the scene. A spokeswoman for Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin said they had treated one 14-year-old boy.

She added: "His condition is stable and he will be kept under observation but he is expected to be discharged tonight."

Emma Cooney, 13, from Mount Merrion, said: "It was a really terrible experience. I banged my head when I capsized. A lifeboat came to my rescue.

"I was really frightened and just wanted to be saved. I kept thinking it was going to be all right as I could see loads of rescue boats. I will go sailing again but maybe not tomorrow."

There were 400 children involved in the National Yacht Club Youth Regatta and they had been sailing since 10am.

The Republic's Education Minister Mary Hanafin, who arrived at the scene, said: "Thank God nobody was lost at sea. It could have been a potentially critical situation if it was not for the quick response of the emergency services."

RNLI spokesman David Branigan added: "In the 23 years that I have been working it is one of the biggest operations I have been involved in.

"There were a lot of rescue boats out on the water very quickly, the system really works - nobody died. It was potentially a disaster but lucky the children only suffered from shock and cold."

LE Aoife's Lt-Cmdr Aedh McGinn said: "Wind was forecast but it came early. It was just a freak wind from the south-east, you don't expect winds likes that in July.

"Luckily, we were in the area since this morning and were just heading off when we were alerted.

"We were back at the scene within 15 minutes and released our two Ribs into the water." An instructor on the course said: "The wind and rain blew in very quickly. We were just pulling children out of the water and putting them in larger boats.

"A lot of the children's parents brought their boats out to help with the operation." The Republic's health service activated its Major Emergency Plan and officials asked people in Dublin to avoid going to A&E departments unless it was absolutely necessary.

Lifeboat operations manager Stephen Wynne said: "This is a natural part of sailing. Wind speeds sometimes increase and they can speed up very quickly.

"I am happy that the Royal St George's Yacht Club had enough rescue boats in place for the occasion.

"And it is important to realise these children are trained how to sail and we don't get or expect squalls like this all the time."

Irish President Mary McAleese praised the emergency services, adding: "Thankfully a potential major tragedy has been averted."

ulster@mirror.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

BACK ON DRY LAND: Survivor at Dun Laoghaire yesterday; SOUVENIR: T-shirt takes on new meaning; RECOVERED: Overturned boats in Dublin Bay; SCALE: RNLI's Branigan; SAFE: Tiffany Brien; TREATMENT: Boy with rescue worker; HORROR: Onlookers saw boats overturn; RELIEF: Survivor warms up yesterday
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 6, 2007
Words:1131
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