How Clever Cousins Ellen Glynn and Sara Feeney Survived at Sea

The Glynn Family, Galway
Tenacity, courage, and bravery are just some of the qualities Galway girls Ellen Glynn, 17 and Sara Feeney, 23 displayed during their recent paddleboarding ordeal last week in Galway writes Bláthnait Ní Mhurchú.

*Feature image: The Glynn Family, Joe O’Shaughnessy

What started out as a fun evening on the water at Furbogh beach, Galway, on Wednesday last, resulted in both Ellen and Sara being swept out to sea and spending 15 hours alone and adrift in the Atlantic ocean.

Following an extensive search involving family, friends, local sailing clubs, the gardaí, RNLI, the Coast Guard, Civil Defence and a number of volunteers, the girls were eventually discovered by fisherman Patrick Oliver and his 18-year old son Morgan, freezing cold, clinging to the buoy of a lobster pot south of Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands just before lunchtime on Thursday, 13 August.

They were then safely transferred by the Coast Guard helicopter to University Hospital Galway for medical attention before being discharged home to their families. Ellen and Sara had been in the water since 8.30pm on Wednesday, 12 August. 

Speaking to RTÉ’s Today with Sarah McInerney, Ellen Glynn explained that while she regularly went paddleboarding, Sara was not as experienced. It took just a few minutes to be blown out. The cousins, who are from the Knocknacarra area of Galway city were wearing only bikinis and buoyancy aids due to the warm weather that Wednesday evening however conditions quickly changed and gave way to a thunderous night of wind and rain. Ellen noted that the pair remained calm for most of the time that they were at sea as they knew they would be found. They even took it in turns to sleep on the paddleboards and sang as many Taylor Swift songs they knew to keep themselves going. Remarkably Ellen and Sarah used their rationale in extreme circumstances and took the initiative to tie their board leashes together so as not to drift apart. 

The breaking news of their disappearance not only affected their immediate families, friends and neighbours, it also sent a ripple of fear through the watersports community in Galway. 

“This was an unimaginable ordeal to go through and we are all so happy that the girls are safe and back home with their loved ones” says Karen Concannon, Galway based SUP Instructor and qualified Lifeguard. Speaking about safety on the water, Karen adds “Any watersport taking place in open water carries risks. Things that may help to minimise these risks are checking the weather forecast, understanding offshore winds, having a mobile phone or GPS tracking device, (Ellen Glynn said it was the first time she went out without one), being aware of changes in winds, tide and weather (clouds) early on and knowledge of self-rescue techniques.” 

In her interview with RTÉ, Ellen, a keen paddleboarder, hoped the incident wouldn’t give paddleboards ‘a bad name.’ As one of 2020’s most-Googled summer activities, Paddleboarding has seen a growing interest over the past few years and it’s easy to see why: Despite being a great sport for kids and adults of all ages, the activity comes with many added benefits such as a great fitness workout improving balance, coordination and the more leisure-prone among us can just idly float down a scenic body of water.

However, we can all learn a life lesson from what happened last week. The survival skills and stamina that are attributed to the way these two girls overcame 15 hours at sea has to be recognised and acts as a reminder to encourage the development of life skills in children from a young age. Coupled with becoming more safety aware on the water before taking to the river/ocean helps to minimise the risk of getting into difficulty. 

The sheer relief and joy experienced in the miraculous recovery of the two girls was certainly felt by an entire nation. What is fast becoming the mantra and message of 2020 comes to mind – #StaySafe both on and off the water.

*SUP Safety Resources 

ASI Master SUP Trainer, and an experienced educator, trainer and SUP paddler Paul Byrne owns and runs IRISHSUP, an ASI accredited SUP School, located at Dublin. Instrumental in the massive growth of SUP in Ireland, he works tirelessly on developing standards and rules for SUP at a local and national level. SUP Wise is a learn to stand up paddle program created by ASI identifying different SUP skills and knowledge, based on the location and techniques, using learn to SUP manuals and student workbooks, suitable for individuals or school groups. See SUP WISE 

The Irish Canoe Union T/A Canoeing Ireland, recognised by the Irish Sports Council and the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI) as the governing body of the sport and recreation of canoeing in Ireland have developed a number of safe paddling guidelines available here: ICU Safe Paddling Guidelines