In the second sinking of a sail training vessel in UK/French waters in less than a month, Ireland's National sail-training ship and two-masted brigatine, the Asgard II, sank for unknown reasons off the French coast yesterday (Thursday 11th September). There were 20 trainees and five crew on board, but all escaped safely thanks to the French Coast Guard.
Happier times - Asgard II in Cadiz Parade of Sail
Last month the 13 young crew of 60ft sail training yacht the Clyde Challenger had to be rescued when their boat flooded while sailing in the North Sea, 125 miles off the UK coast (See Sail-World story ). The crew, aged 15-25, were picked up by a passing ship after sending out a distress call. The crew, who were taking part in a Tall Ships race at the time, were safely transferred on to the vessel named Loyal.
In the latest sinking, two French coast guard vessels took everyone in the lifeboats to the island of Belle-Ile-en-Mer, about 10 nautical miles off the coast of Brittany. The trainees who had paid for a week's training were checked into an island hotel.
'It was very traumatic, albeit exciting for some,' Colm Newport, the ship's captain told the Herald Tribune.
Newport said an automated alarm sounded after 2 a.m. warning that the hull was rapidly flooding. Emergency pumps 'couldn't cope with the inflow of water' and was suffering 'a critical loss in stability,' he said. So he ran through the quarters shouting for the passengers to get all hands on deck for evacuation, an emergency drill they had already practiced.
As the 20 trainees and five crew boarded life rafts, Newport said, the deck of the Asgard II was only minutes away from being washed over with waves. The captain said he thought the evacuation took about five minutes but couldn't be sure.
'My watch is now at the bottom of the ocean,' he said.
Newport refused to speculate on the cause of the accident. 'We have no idea,' he said in the phone call with the Herald Tribune.
At the time of its sinking, the Asgard II was nearing the end of a weeklong voyage from Falmouth, southwest England, to the French port of La Rochelle. Its 'trainees' were aged from 16 to their mid-60s and included 18 Irish people, a Briton and an Italian.
An Irish navy vessel, the Niamh, and Irish Embassy officials from Paris were traveling to Belle-Ile to help the stranded crew and passengers return home. While waiting they took turns phoning anxious relatives back in Ireland.
Larry Byrne said his daughter Holly, an experienced sailor and lifeguard, spoke to him by phone. 'She doesn't think they hit anything,' he said. 'She could see one side of the ship coming up out of the water and the other side dropping in.'
A former captain of the Asgard II, Frank Traynor, said the ship was built to survive hurricane-strength winds. He suspected that a faulty 'sea cock' — one of dozens of valves designed to permit sea water to enter the ship to cool engines or flush toilets — was to blame.
Brigatine Asgard II
'Certainly she had several pumps on board, and she was so well built originally that she had backups to backups on board,' Traynor said. 'But if it was one of the main sea cocks that came off, then it would be same as for any ship: You wouldn't be able to pump the water out and it would be a matter of time before she sinks.'
Traynor, who captained the ship in the mid-1980s, bemoaned the sinking.
'She was just coming into her prime now,' he told Irish national broadcasters RTE. 'She was built specifically for sail training, to take the toughest water that could ever be thrown at it. I was with her in several hurricanes, and I would prefer to be on Asgard than on ships 10 times her size.'
The depth of the water where the Asgard II sank is unknown, or whether the ship can be refloated.