Capsize in the Thames: 'They were holding on for dear life'

The crew at Chiswick on the River Thames is one of our busiest - and in October 2016 they knew it wouldn’t be long before they were called on for the 3,000th time. But who would need their help?

Crew members Gavin Simmons and Holly Walters prepared to wash down the Chiswick inshore E class lifeboat on the morning of Tuesday 25 October. It was the final day of their 4-day shift, and handing over a lifeboat to the next crew is all part of a routine that differs from most stations.

While most lifeboat crews operate with pagers, Chiswick is one of three RNLI lifeboat stations on the River Thames that has lifesavers on site 24/7. The crew members and helms undertake 12-hour shifts for 4 consecutive days - sleeping and eating at the lifeboat stations.

Along with Holly and Gavin, full-time Helm Andy Mayo was also on shift that Tuesday, completing some paperwork inside the office. ‘At about 9.30am, Andy came down to join us outside,’ remembers Gavin, ‘and we happened to spy a rowing coach in a support boat.’

The rowing coach was struggling with something, but the lifeboat crew’s view was obscured by a large yellow buoy. So they launched to take a closer look.

The rescue

‘As we got nearer, the Coastguard started up on the radio,’ recalls Andy. ‘They were getting 999 calls reporting people in the water - but we couldn’t see anyone because of the buoy. It was only as we came round to face the coach that we saw four girls in the water. They were next to this upturned rowing boat, holding on for dear life.’

The schoolgirls had headed out from their training club for an early morning practice in the autumn school holiday, accompanied by their coach in another boat, plus another rower in a single scull (a boat used in competitive rowing).

The group had been rowing with the tide - the correct procedure on the River Thames - but ran into difficulty as a passenger boat coming in the opposite direction struggled to move over to allow them all enough room to pass.

‘In a moment of panic,’ Andy recounts, ‘the rower in the single scull upturned.’ But as the coach attempted to help them back into their boat, the four girls began to drift with the tide until they collided with the yellow buoy - plunging them into the cold water too.

‘Typically, rowers don’t wear the warmest of clothes because of the nature of the sport,’ Andy explains. ‘These girls had T-shirts and their Lycra on, so they were going to get cold quite quickly. Getting them out of the water became our priority.’

Gavin adds: ‘Andy steered us alongside the nose of the rowing boat and shimmied us along so that Holly and I could pick them up from the water into the lifeboat. They had only been in the water for a matter of minutes and they were already very, very cold.’

‘It was great that this didn’t scare them too much’

We may not be a lifeboat station that launch out in raging waves, but had one of the girls drifted off, it could have quickly escalated into something really serious,’ Holly explains.

‘Once we got all of the girls in the lifeboat, we gave them blankets, wrapped them up and gave them some water - they were great.’

As Andy, Gavin and Holly powered the four rowers back to their training club, the coach remained close behind them with the single scull in tow.

‘In the end, this was a big adventure for them,' says Andy. 'Holly and Gav were talking to them and they kept nice and calm. We asked them: “Are you still going to go rowing?” And they said: “Yeah! Yeah!” So it was great that this didn’t scare them too much.’

The crew return the rowers safely back to their training club
The crew return the rowers safely back to their training club

3,000 shouts: 'It's so important for us to be here'

Chiswick is one of the RNLI’s newer lifeboat stations and our second busiest - the crew has been saving lives on their patch of the river since January 2002. The busiest station is Tower, also situated on the River Thames.

If Chiswick lifeboat crew hadn't been there, this story might have had a very different ending. So how does it feel to reach a significant rescue milestone so early in their history?

‘It’s a really good team effort,’ Andy reflects. ‘We come to the station, ready to start day 1 of our shift, and we’ll ask the guys who are finishing: “How many jobs have you had over the last set of 4?” They tell us, the baton gets passed and we carry it on. We’re all part of the same team.’

Holly adds: ‘It’s wonderful that we have a presence here on the Thames because it’s so important for us to be here. Three thousand call outs just reinforces that we need to keep doing what we’re doing.’

The Chiswick crew who rescued the four young rowers. Left to right: Helm Andy Mayo; Crew Member and Helm Gavin Simmons; Crew Member Holly Walters.
The Chiswick crew who rescued the four young rowers. Left to right: Helm Andy Mayo; Crew Member and Helm Gavin Simmons; Crew Member Holly Walters

Life at Chiswick

The volunteers at Chiswick Lifeboat Station provide around 12 miles of search and rescue cover on the River Thames - including the iconic start and finish points of the annual Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race.

‘There’s a large rowing community here - it’s one of the most frequent types of shouts we get called to,’ explains Gavin.

‘We also get tasked to help people out walking and those out with their dogs. Dogs will go into the water and, naturally, their owners want go in after them to help them - but that’s how they can get stuck.

‘We have two marinas on our patch and a lot of residents here have their own boats. With us being here, we can educate people in the surrounding areas about how to stay safe on the water, so it’s great we can offer that too.’

‘Every day is different,’ adds Andy. ‘You can turn left and head into central London where it’s busy, built-up and industrial, but you can turn right and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by the beautiful gardens and scenery in Kew.

‘We’ve got a very fast-flowing river which can be dangerous. You can look out at the tides and they may not look very strong - but they are.’

'The currents can suck you down easily,’ agrees Holly. ‘They change in speed and when coupled with the temperature of the water, you also have the risk of hypothermia.

‘Every year, we take part in a boot camp at the station to remind ourselves what the tides are like. We do a river swim where we’ll be kitted up with our dry suits, helmets, boots, the works. Everyone always comes out of it surprised at how strong the tides are - you just can’t swim in a straight line.’

‘Knowing that we’ve done over 3,000 call outs and saved so many lives in our very short time - it can only be a good thing,’ says Andy. ‘It’s a nice feeling to know that we’re doing something to help in London.’

Andy and Gavin powering out along the River Thames
Andy and Gavin powering out along the River Thames

Feeling inspired?

Become a volunteer

If you have resolved to be courageous this New Year and try something new, find out how you can help save lives at sea and on the water through volunteering for the RNLI. It's not just about crewing our lifeboats you know!

Visit Chiswick

Or perhaps you have resolved to visit interesting places - add Chiswick to your bucket list! Read more about Chiswick RNLI's patch of the River Thames, including things to do and places to visit, in our spotlight feature: Riverside charm and cheer in Chiswick.