The day a brave Cork tug crew saved lives on windswept seas
These are the marine version of tow trucks and fire trucks, and one is usually parked at the Whitegate Oil Refinery in case of an emergency.
I’ve seen them drive around the harbor since I was a kid, but beyond that, I never really paid attention to what they did, to be honest, until I had a chat with Mick Mulcahy recently.
He reminded me that his father worked on tugs for years and told me to call him. Mick is mostly remembered for his famous 96fm liquidations, but he also has a great love for the sea which he probably got from his father.
Tony Mulcahy is a retired tugboat and he gave me a glimpse into tug life. He joined the company in 1964 and had plenty of stories to tell. I think they were originally called Irish Tugs Ltd, but Cory Towage has taken over and the tugs are now operated by Doyle Shipping Group.
I don’t have enough space to go into details, but I’ll try to give you some idea of the type of life they’ve had.
It was Saturday afternoon, around 3 p.m., when he rushed over to the Thorngarth to join the five other crew members, all experienced men. It was an emergency, so time was running out.
It had been blowing an easterly gust all day, and the forecast was bad, so they knew what to expect. They expected to hit rough seas, so they tied it all up as they went along.
The Rathmore, an approximately 700 ton tanker, had been in trouble since early in the morning and was dangerously close to running aground near a place called Fishpoint, three miles south of the entrance to Cork Harbor and close to Rinabella Bay and Fountainstown. This was a dangerous situation because the Rathmore had already lost one anchor and the weather had deteriorated, there was a possibility that it could lose the other as well.
As the tug passed Roches Point, it rolled violently, throwing the crew like a cork on the water. By the time they reached the distressed tanker they were being beaten by huge waves and when they got on deck they found themselves working in waist-deep water. They found it difficult to stand.
The tug was soaked in water most of the time, waves coming from all directions. On one occasion Tony was knocked down and thrown against the side of the tug, which was submerged at the time, and he hit him so hard with his chest that he lost his breath.
It was a dangerous situation, with the tanker and tug rising very high with the waves and then falling out of sight. They knew if the tug was damaged they were in serious trouble.
The men had been working in the water since arriving at the scene and were frozen to the bone, but they had not yet finished.
Tony needed an extension on the tow line, but it wasn’t going to be easy under the current conditions. Lying on their backs under the tow rope, the crew members bided their time until they had a chance to climb the extension line. The request would have been difficult at the best of times, and the storm made everything even more dangerous, but they got it right.
Tony joined the skipper, Joe Keane, on the bridge and offered to pick him up at the wheel but he refused. Joe couldn’t speak. His mouth was so dry he couldn’t even wet his lips.
When they arrived in port, they brought the Rathmore to a safe anchorage and the boat’s mate boarded the tug and spoke to the crew. He shook hands with them and thanked them for saving their lives. He couldn’t believe what the Thorngarth men had been through.
Rathmore’s men knew they were in a bad situation, but when they saw what the tug crew was facing, they felt safer on their boat.
The mate said the tug looked more like a submarine than a tug, and at one point they feared that when the tug reappeared out of the waves someone would have been lost.
The Rathmore was moored at 9 p.m. at Deepwater Quay in Cobh and the men left service. Just another day’s work for the tugs.
They only realized later that the Thorngarth had been badly damaged and in need of huge repairs.