A major disaster has been averted after the remnants of an Atlantic hurricane threw young sailors from their boats at a world championship event in County Down.

Eight young sailors were hospitalised after the sudden violent storm, sparked by Hurricane Bertha, hit the 176 competitors at the GP15 World Championships on Strangford Lough.

Winds reached 37 knots as the 88 boats were hit by the squall and the Irish Mirror reports that 20 of the 14-foot vessels, each holding a two-person crew, were capsized.

The Portaferry lifeboat was launched as emergency teams from East Down yacht club went to the rescue of the stricken sailors.

The Ulster Hospital at Dundonald was placed on full alert for a major incident and a full scale emergency drill saw two police helicopters sent to the scene along with ambulance, fire and coastguard crews.

All the sailors were rescued and no major injuries reported.

One fire office told the Irish Mirror: “We treated this as a full scale emergency exercise and we are very grateful the news is not worse.”

The paper says two young female sailors suffered a suspected broken hand and wrist and another suffered a bump to the nose.

A spokesman for the East Down club said: “We would not sail in those conditions and we quickly needed to get the fleet back to shore.

“But a number of the boats capsized and were being successfully corrected by their crews and the 13 safety boats that were accompanying the fleet when I made the call to the Coastguard.

“The race officer correctly made the decision to contact the Coastguard as a precaution in case the weather continued to be poor but in fact it improved within just 15 minutes.

“No one in the event was seriously injured apart from a few cuts and bruises which is consistent with the sport at this level.

“We were astonished by the emergency response and will be twirling out how it happened this way but it just showed us that if we were in trouble, the emergency services were right there for us.

“Thankfully it effectively turned into a positive exercise for everyone and we will assess how the responses were activated at that scale.

“I called the Portaferry Coastguard myself as a precaution and they were aware of that.

“But suddenly we saw inaccurate reports in the TV that 100 children had ended up in the water and needed rescued. It was totally wrong and a real worry for anyone who wasn’t on site who had friends of family competing. There were a lot of worried phone calls coming in.

“We are fortunate that we didn’t need the vast amount of emergency help that turned up so quickly but we are grateful that they were there and confident in the fact that the emergency protocol swung into action.”