1 day, 3 calls for Exmouth crew and new lifeboat
The pagers had been turned off for reconfiguration. A school visit of the lifeboat station was about to take place, leaving plenty for the Exmouth volunteers to be getting on with that morning. R and J Welburn, the station’s new Shannon class, was awaiting the schoolchildren’s arrival, when the crew received the first of three calls for help on 13 November.
‘Launch both boats’
The Exmouth lifeboat volunteers knew that their pagers would be switched off on that fateful Thursday. They had prepared for a shout by use of their mobile phones. The station’s Lifeboat Operations Manager, Kevin Riley, would send a text message to the crew if the call for help came. Sure enough, at 11.15am, it did.
Kevin was in the midst of the school tour when the Coastguard called to report a man thought to be in the water of the Exe Estuary. Kevin looked out to the tide. ‘I could see the waters were choppy and the wind was rapidly picking up to Force 9,’ he recalls. The river surrounding the station was calm enough to allow the inshore lifeboat, George Bearman, to launch. But with the conditions worsening, Kevin quickly made the decision to send the Shannon alongside her.
Kevin sent a text message to the crew to “launch both boats.” Two volunteers didn’t receive the text, but Kevin was prepared and immediately followed up the message with a phone call. ‘We had to launch fast. Someone could have been in the water, so time was of the essence,’ he explains.
Off she goes!
Before the Coastguard called, the R and J Welburn was occupied with the schoolchildren. Kevin had taken the kids aboard the Shannon and was teaching them about her lifesaving features. Then the tour came to an abrupt stop. Kevin quickly escorted the children off the all-weather lifeboat and into the crew room, allowing the crew to get straight to work when they arrived.
The children saw three lifeboat volunteers arrive at the station and scramble aboard the George Bearman. They watched on as the remaining six volunteers launched the R and J Welburn for the first time. ‘The coxswain did a sterling job – as did the crew – in getting her launched,’ Kevin says, proudly.
A plug being pulled from a bath
The lifeboat volunteers manoeuvred carefully across the rocky waters, as they powered to Starcross - the west shore of the Exe Estuary. The Coastguard had reported the man to be in the sand bar here.
‘The sand bar is the main entrance to the marina,' Kevin explains. 'It’s around 150 yards wide. About 4 metres of water can come through it in height. When the water does come through, it’s like a plug being pulled from a bath – it goes all at once. That’s how we knew this man could be in real trouble.’
Damage and heartache
As the lifeboat crew moved into the marina, they spotted the man. Thankfully, he was not in the water, but was battling with the roughness of the tide onboard his vessel. With the winds heavily gusting, the man had become worried about the mooring on his boat. He had jumped from the sea wall to land aboard his boat and was making sure it was secure.
The Exmouth volunteers approached and Crew Member Andy Stott leapt from the George Bearman onto the man’s boat to check that he was safe. After assessing him, Andy deemed the man to be fit and well and transported him carefully to the inshore lifeboat. The rest of the crew were then able to transfer him onto the Shannon where he could be taken ashore to safety.
Minutes later, the three volunteers aboard George Bearman, including Andy, were re-tasked by the Coastguard. A member of the public had reported that a catamaran had broken its mooring in the same marina. With the severe winds, the boat was in danger of wrecking the other vessels and was set up for a serious accident.
The inshore lifeboat crew were quick to respond and spotted the broken catamaran. They secured the boat by putting its anchors out before it could reach any of the other moored vessels. ‘Material-wise, the crew saved around £50,000 in damages by securing the boat. They saved a lot of damage and a lot of heartache from owners,’ says Kevin.
Later that day
By the afternoon, both lifeboat crews had returned to Exmouth station. They were a little tired, but proud of each other for pulling together as a team without the assistance of the pagers. But it wasn’t long before their help was needed again.
At 3.20pm, a kitesurfer rushed worriedly into the lifeboat station, reporting that someone had been separated from his kite in the water. He was thought to be struggling in the turbulent conditions.
‘We couldn’t see any coconuts’
‘We can usually see people in the water from the station,’ explains Kevin. ‘Their heads look no bigger than the size of a coconut. But that day, I couldn’t see any coconuts.’
This called for an immediate launch of the George Bearman. The inshore lifeboat was essential in this instance, as the kitesurfer couldn’t be seen. Therefore, the crew needed to get close enough to the rocks of the estuary in case the tide had swept the casualty out of sight. The inshore lifeboat volunteers prepared to launch to their third shout of the day.
Kevin called out to the Inshore Lifeboat Helmsman Dave Preece as the crew pressed the button to launch. He told Dave he would keep an eye on them from the station and would prepare to launch the R and J Welburn to assist, if the rip tides got worse. It took the inshore lifeboat just 6 minutes to get into the water.
In the angry waves, the lifeboat volunteers began their search for the missing kitesurfer. After 20 minutes, the crew thankfully spotted the casualty with his board on the sand bar. They signalled back to the station and Kevin stood the Shannon down. The crew were able to get close enough to the stranded man and pulled him onboard the George Bearman. He was immediately brought back to shore.
‘The conditions were very challenging for anyone out on the water that day,' Kevin says. 'The crew demonstrated great teamwork and there was fantastic helming shown by Dave Preece.’
With the pagers being turned off on that unforeseen Thursday and the lifeboat volunteers at their regular day jobs, the crew still arrived when the call for help came.
‘It really shows the dedication of everyone who volunteers at the RNLI,' Kevin adds. 'It also shows the generosity of the employers who let their staff leave at the drop of a hat to attend a shout. I’d like to say a massive thank you to them, for helping us save lives at sea.’
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