Carrick man tells of dramatic sea rescue

Mr Dobbin with three of the young people rescued from the boat in 1980.  The Carrick man later received a letter from one of the young women to say that a number of the group had settled in Montreal, Canada.
Mr Dobbin with three of the young people rescued from the boat in 1980. The Carrick man later received a letter from one of the young women to say that a number of the group had settled in Montreal, Canada.

The dramatic rescue of a group of Vietnamese refugees from a sinking boat has been recalled by a Carrickfergus man.

John Dobbin was one of those aboard the SS Ebalina when it pulled 19 men, women and children to safety from their floundering vessel in June 1980.

Image from the deck of the SS Ebalina showing a Vietnamese boat, known as a sampan, in distress.

Image from the deck of the SS Ebalina showing a Vietnamese boat, known as a sampan, in distress.

Mr Dobbin, 89, who served with the British Merchant Navy in the Vietnam theatre, was then a stores catering officer aboard the Ebalina.

The tanker was sailing from Chiba in Japan to Singapore in the midst of a hurricane when it came across another boat in the South China Sea.

The rescue occurred during a time when millions were fleeing the war-torn countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, with those Vietnamese who made their escape on small overcrowded ships known as “boat people”.

It was just such a vessel that Mr Dobbin and his fellow crew members encountered.  “It was a very small boat known as a sampan, and we could see that it was in difficulties,”  recalled Mr Dobbin, from Brook Green in the town.  “A bucket was hanging from the foremast, which was a sign that [they] were out of control and not making any headway.”

Nineteen men, women and children were aboard the boat during the hurricane.

Nineteen men, women and children were aboard the boat during the hurricane.

Crew began the process of bringing the smaller vessel into the lee of the ship, a potentially precarious manoeuvre, he added: “One mistake would have meant disaster for the little sampan; we could have been washed into the sea ourselves.”

Initial attempts were made to rescue the Vietnamese passengers - nine men, six women and four children - via the use of a rope ladder.

However, this tactic had to be abandoned with the risks of slipping from the ladder, or being thrown against the side of the larger ship deemed too great.

Instead, a net attached to a small crane on the deck of the Ebalina was used to conduct the majority of passengers safely onboard.

Cramped conditions aboard the sampan.

Cramped conditions aboard the sampan.

But the ordeal was not over for the refugees.  “One of the boat people was washed overboard from the little craft,” Mr Dobbin said.  “Against all odds, to our joy we managed to get him safely on board and he soon recovered.”

The rescue came not a minute too soon, with a large wave striking the sampan minutes later and causing it to sink.

“All of the crew members were involved in the rescue of the boat people,” Mr Dobbin added.  “They looked after them en route to Singapore, where they were taken in by the Canadian government as migrants.  I later received a letter from one of the women saying they had settled in Montreal.”

Mr Dobbin’s story is one of those outlined in James Durney’s 2008 book ‘Vietnam: The Irish Experience’.

Initial attempts to rescue passengers via a rope ladder were deemed too risky.

Initial attempts to rescue passengers via a rope ladder were deemed too risky.

Crew including John Dobbin (far left) rescue a passenger who was washed overboard.

Crew including John Dobbin (far left) rescue a passenger who was washed overboard.

The group of refugees from the sampan with crew, safely onboard the SS Ebalina.

The group of refugees from the sampan with crew, safely onboard the SS Ebalina.