'I don't want to die'
On one of the hottest weekends of the summer, when seven lives were tragically lost around our coast, it was a different story on Littlehampton Beach.
Where river meets sea, standing waves are an ominous threat to anyone in a small boat. With 2m swell and spring tides, conditions at the mouth of England's second fastest river on 21 August overwhelmed an underpowered and overloaded vessel carrying a family of seven.
‘Hitting the first wave, the boat went right over the top’, RNLI Lifeguard Alex Bryant recalls. 'But with too much weight in the bow, it ploughed straight down into the next wave. I watched a boat go down, but only people came back up.'
Just in time
When the call came from the Coastguard at 4.38pm, the crew at Littlehampton Lifeboat Station were packing up from an open day. The station’s Atlantic 85 lifeboat, Renee Sherman, launched at 4.41pm.
‘If it’d happened 30 minutes later, the lifeguards’ shift would've ended and nobody would've been here. It could've been a disaster,’ remembers Crew Member Martin Blaker-Rowe.
Meanwhile, Alex and fellow lifeguard Jacob McGoldrick raced to launch the inshore rescue boat from the beach.
While Alex expertly manoeuvred the rescue boat around six of the casualties, Jacob pulled them out in record time.
'Not an easy pickup for that boat,’ notes Rob Devo, on the lifeboat crew that day. 'Alex showed phenomenal boathandling.’
Alex remarks on the difficulty of the conditions: 'It wasn't easy getting over the swell in the inshore rescue boat, finding six people and pulling everyone into the boat.
'When we got there the children were screaming and crying and the adults were in complete silence, shocked.
'They’d all swallowed water and, with the way the boat went down, I was relieved to find that everyone was still conscious.’
‘I don’t want to die’
But there was one more casualty still struggling to keep her head above water.
Across the River Arun at what is locally known as the Dickerworks, an 11-year-old girl was being crashed against the wooden structure, screaming in pain as the barnacles cut her arms and legs.
Matt Sapsed and George Clark, who'd spent the afternoon surfing, spotted the girl.
‘I thought to myself: “Can I realistically help her?”’ George recalls.‘You hear about these incidents of people trying to save others and being lost themselves.
'But I’ve lived in Littlehampton all my life; I knew the conditions and I knew my capabilities. I ran in.
‘The waves were crashing into us and my biggest worry was that we’d be knocked into the flow of the river.
'Her oversized lifejacket was slipping off, but I had my arms around her, determined to hold on whatever happened.
'She kept crying, repeating: “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die."
‘When we saw another lifeguard powering across the river on his rescue board and the lifeboat heading out to us it was a relief to tell her: “Look, they’re coming to get you.”'
Back at the station, the shaken girl was reunited with her dad.
Crew Member, Rob Devo, says: ‘I became a father 7 weeks ago. Seeing dad and daughter in the crew room in blankets, hugging and crying together, really hit me.
‘It could’ve ended very differently that day and I’m proud of how everyone - lifeguards, crew, Coastguard and even two brave surfers - worked together to get everyone out safely.’
A word from Martin
'One of the difficulties for the casualties - apart from the accident itself - was that although they were wearing lifejackets, they were not suitable.
‘The lifejacket on the little girl I pulled out was too big for her and constructed of foam, so more suited to dinghy sailing in a lake than an unexpected capsize.
'It was not shaped to maintain an upright position in the water in an exhausting and life-threatening emergency.
'The crotch strap was not done up, so the effect was that she was going down as her lifejacket was riding up.’
Before you next head out on the water, please read our complete guide to lifejackets for information on finding and fitting, using and maintaining a lifejacket. It can mean the difference between life and death.