A paddle too far
For ten-year-old Demi and her dad Steve, kayaking is a real passion. There’s nothing like a good paddle, exploring the local coastline, rivers and lakes and enjoying the freedom and serenity of being out on the water.
Not only do they get to spend fun, quality time together, they get to meet and learn with like-minded people as members of Blyth Kayak Club.
Steve has been kayaking since he was 14 years old. And when Demi began to show an interest in the paddlesport a few years ago, they both joined their local kayaking club. This meant that Demi could learn and practise in the safest way possible and Steve could brush up on his skills too.
They started off their training in the pool learning the basics, before moving on to flat water paddling in local lakes and rivers and eventually the club’s bread and butter – sea paddling around the magnificent Northumberland coastline.
The power of the sea
But no matter how experienced a kayaker you are, the power and unpredictability of the sea can still catch you out.
It’s all about learning how to respect the water and knowing what to do should you find yourself in trouble.
As Demi and Steve found out on a fine but breezy Summer’s day at Blyth Beach at the end of June last year.
‘To start with the day was good,’ Steve explains. ‘A bit of cloud, but the sun was shining through. The sea was calm with a bit of a surf.
‘We were kayaking with members of the Blyth Kayak Club. There were six in our group that day, which included two coaches.
‘Allan Fitch had been doing the majority of Demi’s coaching and they were always close to each other on the water so that Allan could keep an eye on her and give her advice.’
‘We were kayaking around the pier and into the second smaller beach, where I practised a little bit of surfing,’ Demi recalls. ‘We’d been out about 2 hours before we headed back towards the beach where we’d started.’
‘And that’s when the weather and the sea conditions suddenly changed,’ Steve continues. ‘The wind picked up and the surf increased.’
Getting back to shore
It was when an experienced kayaker capsized while attempting to get back to shore that Demi became increasingly worried about making it back by herself.
‘Demi was finding it difficult to keep up with us and was getting upset,’ Steve says. ‘She couldn’t hear what Allan was trying to tell her because of the wind. And the surf was larger than anything she’d experienced before.
‘So Allan advised me to go back to the beach so that he could concentrate on looking after Demi. I have full trust in Allan as an experienced kayaker and coach and, although I was concerned about Demi, I knew she was in good hands.
‘I found it difficult getting back to the beach, but luckily I was able to ride the surf in without capsizing. As soon as I reached the shore, I got out of my kayak and walked back into the sea a little so that Demi could keep me in sight.’
Help was at hand
Thankfully, help wasn’t too far away.
Allan began waving to get their attention, which wasn’t that unusual for the Blyth lifeboat crew. Helm Steven Fitch is Allan’s son so Allan and the other kayakers often wave at the lifeboat crew when out on the water.
But on this day, they soon realised he was waving them over for a very different reason.
‘I wanted to get the lifeboat alongside as quickly as we could without capsizing Demi or my dad,’ Helm Steven Fitch explains. ‘I also wanted the crew to make sure Demi was just having difficulty and that there wasn’t some other reason for her being upset, such as an injury.’
‘I was relieved when I saw the lifeboat,’ Demi says. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to get back to the shore otherwise.’
Once Demi was safely aboard Blyth’s D class inshore lifeboat, Alan and Amy, Helm Steven began making his way through the waves to the shore.
‘I think Demi was a bit overwhelmed at first when she realised she was getting into the lifeboat,’ Steven says. ‘But to her credit she was calm throughout the whole thing.’
Crew Member Mark Walker reassured Demi and tried to make her journey as comfortable as possible. ‘I was talking to and supporting Demi in the boat so she didn’t get thrown around as we went through the surf,’ he recalls. ‘And I was also securing the kayak as we took that back in at the same time.’
Beaching the boat
The D class lifeboat was designed for rescues like this - close to shore in shallow water and rough surf - and it can be intentionally beached in emergencies. But it also takes great skill as a helmsman to manoeuvre the D class in these conditions.
‘Beaching the lifeboat is fairly straightforward,’ Helm Steven explains. ‘The D class is a very capable boat and the training we do prepares us to do just that when needed. We use the height of the waves to our advantage so we can see what or who may be in the surf.’
‘It’s something we practise quite regularly given our local area,’ Mark adds. ‘But it can be quite rough, and we don’t often practise with a kayak onboard. The main difficulty was securing the kayak so it didn’t complicate the beaching.’
Mark explained to Demi exactly what they were going to do so that she knew what to expect and once she was safely back on dry land, Demi recalls:
‘I felt so happy that I’d got back to shore and could finally stand on the ground!’
But both Demi’s and the lifeboat crew’s relief was to be short-lived because there was another emergency to attend to. Demi’s dad Steve was now in serious trouble.
Caught in a rip current
‘Unfortunately it was a mistake for me to walk back into the sea,’ Steve recalls. ‘The other three members of our group were also in the water but only up to about knee deep.
‘Before I knew it, I was in a little too deep and the waves knocked me off my feet. It was only later that I was told I was in a rip current.
‘I tried to swim back to the beach but was only getting swept further out. I still had all my kayaking clothing on and fortunately my PFD [personal flotation device] was keeping me afloat.
‘I tried to signal to the others that I was in trouble, but then the lifeboat arrived.’
The lifeboat crew had already spotted Steve in the water as they were beaching the boat. And other members of the kayak club on the beach were pointing, alerting them to the danger Steve was in. So the crew knew they had to make a quick turnaround, back into the surf, after dropping Demi off.
‘We realised his spray deck, the skirt that seals a kayaker into their kayak and prevents water from getting inside, was dragging him along in the current,’ Helm Steven explains. ‘We just needed to get the lifeboat turned around as quickly as possible. From experience during training, I know not to drive it too fast towards the sand and up the beach otherwise we have to drag it back into the water.’
‘Similarly to the beaching, we practise launching into surf quite a lot and in similar conditions to those that day so it was fairly straightforward,’ Mark adds. ‘The trickier part was pulling Steve into the lifeboat in between the waves.
‘He was in real danger. His kayaking gear was restricting his movement. And even though his PFD was keeping him afloat, he was underwater for 3-4 seconds each time a wave broke over him. You could see the distress and desperation in his face. The situation could have quickly gotten a lot worse.’
‘It was a huge relief when the lifeboat arrived,’ Steve says. ‘When I knew it was coming back for me I stopped trying to swim anywhere and just let my PFD keep me afloat. I raised my arms to wave so they could see me better.’
‘A big relief all round’
Once onboard the lifeboat, the crew checked Steve over before beaching the lifeboat again to drop him back to shore where he and Demi were reunited.
‘At first it wasn’t clear they were father and daughter until they were reunited on the shore and then it all clicked into place,’ Mark recalls. ‘It was good to see the relief in Demi’s face when she could hug her father again.’
‘Steve was so grateful for our assistance,’ Helm Steven says. ‘But more grateful that we’d already brought his daughter ashore.’
Overcome with worry for her dad, Demi was still upset when reunited with him on the beach, but very happy to see him. ‘I felt a bit worried because I know the sea’s reputation,’ she says. Wise words from one so young.
Speaking for everyone involved, Steve adds: ‘It was a big relief all round.’
Straight back in the saddle
Undeterred by the events of that day, just a week later Demi and her dad Steve were back at Blyth Beach in their kayaks.
‘I was a bit worried that Demi would be put off sea kayaking,’ says Steve. ‘But a week later we were out in the same part of the sea.
‘The weather was a lot calmer with just a little surf. We paddled into the harbour and went to the lifeboat station. Demi had made a card and wanted to give it to the lifeboat crew. Thankfully they were in and came for a little chat.
‘And now whenever we see the lifeboats out on our paddles, they normally come along and say hello.’
‘It’s great to know that the people we help appreciate all the work we do within the RNLI,’ Mark says. ‘It also shows that on this occasion, Demi has really learnt a lot from her experience, which means it’s less likely she’ll find herself in the same position again.’
‘I’m glad we were there to help,’ Helm Steven says. ‘We all worked well as a team and I think that’s down to the regular training we do. If we didn’t have the training, we would have probably all ended up upside-down on the beach wondering what happened!
‘Although Demi and Steve got into trouble that day they clearly had their sensible hats on. They were with other kayakers from their local club, which is the right way to go about kayaking – learning from more experienced people and never just going it alone.
‘We all know the sea can be dangerous, but there’s lots of ways to minimise your risk and have a great time.’
A whale of a time
And having a great time is exactly what Demi and her dad Steve have been doing since their rescue in June last year.
‘Less than a month later we paddled around Coquet Island with the kayak club – we love spotting wildlife,’ Steve says. ‘And we went to the Lake District for their Summer camp last year, which we really enjoyed.’
Demi is now a loyal member of Storm Force, our club especially for young ones. Being a member makes her a very important part of the RNLI family and her exclusive Storm Force crew bag has come in really handy for her kayaking kit.
And Demi and Steve haven’t been the only ones having a great time. Demi’s nana, Violet, was so grateful to our Blyth lifeboat crew that she wanted to do something very special in return. So on Easter Monday this year at the tender age of 72 she jumped out of an aeroplane on a tandem skydive, raising over £500 for Blyth RNLI.
Way to go Violet!
Most of Violet’s donations were made offline. But if her incredible feat has impressed you as much as it wowed us, you can donate to Violet’s JustGiving page right here.
Up for a paddle?
If all this talk of kayaking has whet your appetite to get out on the water, here’s some sound advice from Demi and Steve on how you can enjoy it safely and bring life to your Summer.
Steve: ‘It’s the kind of exercise that keeps you fit without thinking you’re doing any hard work!’
Demi: ‘I like that it is fun to do and you get to meet loads of people who share the same hobby.’
Steve: ‘And I get to spend extra time with Demi!
‘Kayaking gives you a lot of enjoyment and freedom. But it’s important that you get the correct training.
‘As we’re still classed as learners we only go out with club paddles at sea. Our coaches have the experience needed to keep us safe and carry safety equipment with them.
‘But whatever your ability, you should always go out in small groups for safety.
‘I also now understand rip currents better and will think twice about walking into the surf.
‘But it’s good to know that there are people who give up their time to help people like us. Demi and I would like to say a big thank you to all the RNLI volunteers and staff around the country for the work they do.’
Bringing life to Summer
It is good to know that our lifeboat crews around the UK and Republic of Ireland are there for you around the clock.
But learn to respect the water and you’ll reduce the chances of ever needing them at all.