Morecambe Bay: Stuck in the mud

A wander around Morecambe Bay, with its treacherous sands and flood tide rushes, can deteriorate from idyllic seaside walk to life-threatening situation in a matter of seconds, as a couple in their 70s recently found out.

While taking a lunchtime stroll along Humphrey Head, near Flookburgh, on 4 September, a husband and wife suddenly found themselves stuck in the mudflats and sinking quickly. Unable to free themselves from the mud and without a mobile phone to call for help, the couple were in serious danger.

Spotted

In a lifesaving coincidence, a fellow walker spotted the couple and called the coastguard, who quickly requested the help of the Morecambe RNLI hovercraft crew.

At 12.16pm, Morecambe volunteers’ pagers went off and Hovercraft Commander Harry Roberts and Crew Members Andy Wright, James Dunnell and Marcus Buchanan rushed to launch the hovercraft. Travelling at speeds of up to 30 knots, the hovercraft flew the 5 miles across the bay to Humphrey Head to begin the search.

With the couple so close to Humphrey Head’s rock face, the crew struggled initially to spot them. Luckily, people had gathered on the headland and were waving frantically to catch the crew’s attention. After navigating their way across the flats and into the gulley, the crew managed to get the hovercraft alongside the couple.

As Hovercraft Commander Harry Roberts says: ‘In situations like this, the hovercraft is invaluable. It’s a versatile piece of kit that not only allows us to navigate mudflats and smaller channels to get to the casualties, but also to get as close to them as possible at the scene. It also provides a working platform that we can treat casualties on and operate from. It saves a lot of lives in this area.

Upon inspection, the crew found the woman free from the quicksand, cold and terrified to move. Her husband had helped her get free and, in the process, had sunk even further into the mud, so that he was now up to his waist. To make matters worse, the mud had now started to solidify around him. With Morecambe Bay’s tides, the crew knew they needed to act quickly to save his life.

After moving the woman onto the hovercraft and wrapping her in a blanket to warm her up, the crew set to rescuing the man, who was now extremely cold. Not only had he already been in the mud for an hour, but he also had a pacemaker and a heart condition. Despite his condition, he remained cheerful.With the chances of deep vein thrombosis from the pressure of the mud already very high, the crew needed to get him from the mud as quickly as possible.

However, the notoriously treacherous muds had other plans, swallowing the crew’s mud boards and forcing them to risk getting trapped while they dug the man free. They were glad to see the Bay Search and Rescue team arrive on scene shortly afterwards with inflatable boards that allowed the two teams to work free from the risk of sinking.

‘Many hands make light work’

However, as the man was almost a metre deep in the mud, the crew had a hard job of getting him free. The air lance, a tool usually used to free people from mudflats and quicksand, proved ineffective against the rapidly hardening mud. With no time to lose, the teams decided to use the Bay Search and Rescue’s water hose to dilute the sand and mud and, over the course of 20 minutes, slowly pull the man to safety and onto the spinal board.

With the husband and wife free from the mud, the teams from the two rescue charities now had to get them to a doctor. The local air ambulance had landed ready to take them to hospital, but was not in a suitable position for the crews to reach with a stretcher. Instead the crew loaded the injured couple onto the hovercraft and transported them out of the gulley and to the Bay Search and Rescue’s SAR Hagglund – a tracked, all-terrain vehicle capable of crossing the marshes – which managed to get the couple to the ambulance. As Paul Calland, Deputy Station Officer of the Bay Search and Rescue team, says: ‘This was a proper joint effort and a great example of how many hands make light work.’

As a result of the fantastic teamwork of the RNLI team, Bay Search and Rescue and Furness Coastguard (who helped lift the stretcher onto the hovercraft), the couple made it to hospital safely and with relatively minor injuries.

After the rescue, Hovercraft Commander Harry praised his crew, two of whom usually work on the inshore lifeboat: ‘James and Marcus both did a great job on this rescue, but it’s made even more impressive by the fact that they’re normally out on the boat. We’re a little short of volunteers at the moment so the fact that they both stepped in and helped us get out quickly is fantastic.’

Morecambe Lifeboat Station is currently looking for volunteers to join its shore crew. If you live near Morecambe and would like the opportunity to save lives at sea, to make a difference in your local community, and be part of the larger RNLI family, why not consider joining the Morecambe RNLI team?

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