Irish tall ship mysteriously sinks near France

DUBLIN, Ireland — Ireland’s majestic sail-training ship, the Asgard II, sank mysteriously off the French coast today, but its 25 passengers and crew escaped safely on lifeboats.

Two French coast guard vessels took everyone in the lifeboats to the island of Belle-Ile-en-Mer, about 10 miles off Brittany’s coast.

The passengers — civilians who paid at least $700 each for a week’s training on the high seas — were checked into an island hotel, where they mulled their close scrape with death.

“It was very traumatic, albeit exciting for some,” said Colm Newport, the ship’s captain.

The untimely sinking could mean the demise of an unusual Irish tradition. Since 1968, Ireland has provided a state-owned vessel so civilian novices could get a taste of sailing the open sea.

But government and sailing officials said the Asgard II, launched in 1981, could prove too costly and technically difficult to construct again.

Newport said an 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 Newport ran through the quarters shouting for the passengers to get all hands on deck for evacuation, an emergency drill they had 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.

The Irish-built Asgard II was a brigantine, a two-masted vessel with a square-rigged foremast, much in the style of a classic pirate ship. The Irish government specifically commissioned it to replace the Asgard, a much smaller vessel that was most famous as a gunrunning ship for Irish rebels.

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 her 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.

“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.”

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