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Exmouth: That sinking feeling

Sometimes you can do everything right and the sea will still find a way to catch you out. Two friends from Bristol found this out when they decided to hit the east Devon coast for the late May Bank Holiday.

Crew members of Exmouth RNLI in full kit on the shore.

With temperatures around 21°C in Exmouth, the holiday weekend seemed the perfect time to enjoy the water. It marked the start of what RNLI crews call ‘the busy season’ – the Exmouth volunteers had already dealt with four rescues over the last 3 days. On the Sunday, RNLI Helm Robert ‘Tommo’ Thompson popped down to the lifeboat station and had a quiet spot of lunch.

Exmouth Helm Robert 'Tommo' Thompson.

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

Exmouth Helm Robert 'Tommo' Thompson

Meanwhile, Richard Harrison and his friend Jason Halliday were down from Bristol. They had just unloaded Richard’s turbo-charged personal watercraft.

‘Exmouth’s lovely,’ says Richard.

‘I thought we’d go down for the day and have fun on the jet ski. It’s a three-seater but easy to launch with two people.’ He’d been out on it four or five times last season, and this was his first run out of 2017 after getting her serviced.

‘We had our buoyancy aids, wetsuits and all the rest of it,’ says Jason. ‘We put the ski in the water, had a bit of fun. We headed about a mile out, for the other side of Pole Sands [a series of sandbanks in the estuary], so as not to bother the kitesurfers.’

But leaving the River Exe, sea conditions became lively. There was a 2m swell and cross-shore winds were kicking up 2.5m waves that were making things uncomfortable on the watercraft. After 20 minutes, Richard and Jason had had enough and headed in for calmer waters.

On the way back in, the watercraft started rolling heavily.

‘I thought Jason was mucking about on the back,’ says Richard, ‘but he said “It’s not me! It’s not me!”’

Suddenly the craft’s engine cut out. It rolled again and moments later a wave knocked the pair off. Both men clambered aboard and tried to restart it, only to be washed off time and again. To their disbelief, the watercraft started sinking and was dragged away by the current.

‘We were virtually on the sandbar at this point,’ says Jason. ‘The water would have been just above chest height but the current was too strong for us to stand.’ Waves continued to break and Richard, a less powerful swimmer than his friend, started to worry. ‘I felt myself being swept directly out and it made me panic and thrash around. I was thinking “I’ve got to get out, I’ve got to swim back to shore.”’

Don't kick, just float

Even though Jason is a seasoned open-water swimmer, he knew that fighting the current for half a mile wasn’t an option for either of them.

They were wearing wetsuits and buoyancy aids and he tried to reassure his friend that he wouldn’t drown: ‘Don’t kick – just float and ease your breathing. We have to let ourselves go with the tide.’

It was the right advice. The current dragged them after the ski and before long they were spotted by a kitesurfer.

‘He must have seen me flailing about and panicking,’ says Richard. ‘He said he’d go in and call the lifeboat. I really wanted to scramble on his board and go back with him!’

Soon they had caught up with the ski. It was vertical, with just its nose above water. They clung on, realising it was now safer to preserve what was left of the craft’s buoyancy rather than opening the drybox to get their mobiles. ‘The lifeboat crew had a better chance of spotting us with the jet ski,’ says Jason.

Back at Exmouth Lifeboat Station, Tommo’s pager went off at 12.25pm.

‘The Coastguard reported that a kitesurfer had come to the beach and asked the first person he saw to call 999 – apparently two people were in trouble off Orcombe Point,’ Tommo says.

‘Waiting for more volunteers to arrive at the station can seem like an eternity in that situation. But, in reality, it’s only a minute or two.’

Launching the Exmouth inshore lifeboat.
Launching the Exmouth inshore lifeboat

First to arrive were Crew Members Andy Stott and Charles Swales, and by 12.30pm the three were heading out in their D class lifeboat – officially named George Bearman II just the week before.

Once outside the safe water mark the lifeboat crew were hailed by another kitesurfer, who told them that two people were in the water, right at the end of the river. ‘That was in the opposite direction to what we’d been given,’ says Tommo. ‘But if someone is giving you fresh information near the scene – you’ve got to check it out.’

By now it was blowing a force 5 with a strong ebb tide. ‘Conditions weren’t brilliant,’ says Tommo. ‘But our guys are trained to know what to do in that kind of weather. When big waves are coming at you, all eyes are on the front of the lifeboat.’

Exmouth's inshore lifeboat.

Photo: Kevin Riley

Exmouth's inshore lifeboat

The lifesavers followed up their new tip-off but found nothing after 10 minutes. Next, they made thorough sweeps of Orcombe Point – still nothing. Then they headed west, behind Pole Sands, where they found another kitesurfer who had seen the men.

Back at the lifeboat station, a lookout confirmed the ski’s location over VHF radio.

Richard and Jason had drifted a long way but by 1pm the lifeboat crew had found them and pulled them aboard.

‘One of the chaps was very pleased to see us,’ said Charles. ‘He was cold and suffering a bit. Initially he was very chatty but then he started to go downhill – it was probably shock.’

Normally, the crew would have rigged a tow and brought the craft back in with them at this point. ‘But we knew we had to get back over Pole Sands,’ says Andy. ‘It would have taken us longer and been pretty unpleasant in those conditions.’

‘And when you’ve got someone looking like they’re in shock, you don’t know where it’s going to go,’ says Tommo. ‘The RNLI gives us great casualty care training but we didn’t want to be triaging in those conditions.

‘We thought it best to get him ashore fast and hand him over to paramedics.’

Richard had also swallowed seawater.

Aware of the risks of secondary drowning, volunteers at the station called an ambulance and were joined by coastguards to help the men ashore.

On arrival Richard was cold, gasping for air and assessed as ‘big sick’ by RNLI shore crew. Waiting for the ambulance they gave him oxygen, blankets and a hot drink. He quickly improved and the ambulance crew later gave him the all-clear.

‘Our crew and casualties always come first,’ says Tommo. ‘Then we headed back out for the ski. It was a potential hazard and would have triggered more 999 calls. As it turned out, it was also a really useful opportunity to put training into practice.’

Richard and Jason are reunited with the crew.

Photo: Emma Tarling

Richard and Jason are reunited with the crew

Richard and Jason returned to the station later that evening with a few cases of beer for the crew. ‘I really appreciate what they did for us,’ says Richard. ‘They were brilliant, absolutely brilliant. All of them are so professional and they knew exactly what they were doing. And to think they don’t even get paid for it. It’s amazing really.’

Fight your instinct, not the water

Jason and Richard almost certainly averted disaster by being well prepared with buoyancy aids and wetsuits. As well as his kit, Jason was equipped with useful knowledge, encouraging his friend to lie back, float and keep calm. His advice echoes the Float to Live message from our Respect the Water campaign.

Everyone who falls unexpectedly into cold water wants to follow the same instinct, to swim hard and fight the cold water. But when people fight it, chances are, they lose. Cold water shock and exhaustion can quickly lead to drowning.

If you find yourself unexpectedly in the water, try and take a minute to float and catch your breath, before finding a way to swim to safety or calling for help. See for the full guide.