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Three-boat mission to rescue seasick sailor

A lone sailor is in trouble in the Bristol Channel. Incapacitated by seasickness, he calls the Coastguard for help after rounding Hartland Point and sets his 12m yacht to autopilot. But as the yacht continues south, the distance between the sailor and his rescuers is getting greater and greater.

Appledore’s Tamar class all-weather lifeboat Mollie Hunt on its mooring in the Taw and Torridge Estuary

Photo: RNLI/Nicholas Leach

Appledore’s Tamar class all-weather lifeboat Mollie Hunt on its mooring in the Taw and Torridge Estuary

Appledore all-weather lifeboat crew are the first to launch soon after 11pm on Sunday 7 October. It’s a low spring tide and there’s a risk the lifeboat will run aground in the shallow waters of the Taw and Torridge Estuary. But it’s the best lifeboat for the job so the decision is made to try.

Just a few hundred metres from the lifeboat station at Greysands, the crew’s worst fears are realised. The Tamar lifeboat Mollie Hunt bottoms out and can no longer continue on her way until she refloats.

After liaising with the Coastguard, a plan is swiftly put into action. Being further south along the coast and closer to the yacht, Clovelly – Appledore’s flanking lifeboat station – is requested to launch its inshore lifeboat. Appledore’s inshore lifeboat is also launched to assist the Clovelly crew.

Thanks to more volunteers responding to their pagers than needed, Appledore launch their B class inshore lifeboat Glanely very quickly. Two crew members from the all-weather lifeboat, Del Elesmore and Owen Atkinson, are transferred from the all-weather lifeboat to the inshore lifeboat after changing into their drysuits and the lifeboat crew get underway just before midnight. 

Appledore’s B class inshore lifeboat Glanely launching in the dark

Photo: Simon Ellery

Appledore’s B class inshore lifeboat Glanely launching in the dark

A bumpy ride

At the same time, Clovelly lifeboat crew launched their B class inshore lifeboat Toby Rundle. It was Crew Member Marc Baker’s first shout. 

‘It was quite a bumpy trip round to the yacht,’ recalls Marc. ‘Once you get around Hartland Point it can be choppy. That night was pretty windy and there was about a 2–2½m swell. It made it very interesting.’

Clovelly RNLI Crew Member Marc Baker

Photo: RNLI/Rob Weare

It was Clovelly Crew Member Marc Baker’s first shout

They finally caught up with the yacht further down the coast near Morwenstow at 1am, the same time as the Coastguard rescue helicopter. 

‘The yacht was making about 6–8 knots,’ says Marc. ‘We approached it on the port side but it was really lumpy. The casualty was sat behind the helm and he looked very unwell. He didn’t really respond to us being there or when we called him.’

After getting no response from the sailor, Helm Neil Wonnacott decided to transfer Crew Member Jamie Dawkins across to the yacht to help transfer the sailor into the lifeboat.

‘We made a couple of attempts to get Jamie onboard but we failed,’ explains Marc. ‘So we came back around and had another go on the starboard side which was less choppy. Even then, the two boats meeting together was a real battle. By the fifth attempt we managed to get Jamie onboard.’ 

Marc was then tasked with helping to get the sailor onboard the lifeboat. ‘Trying to get the casualty into the lifeboat was the most difficult part,’ he says. ‘One minute we were 2m above the yacht and the next the yacht was 2m above us. 

‘I was kneeling at the bow looking back at Neil and when Neil felt it was right and safe enough, we all just did our bit. It was a “1,2,3, go!” moment. I grabbed hold of the casualty’s vest and pulled him into the lifeboat while Jamie pushed him from behind.

‘As soon as I got the casualty into the bow of the lifeboat, I got him to grab hold of the handles. I put my arms around him and knelt over the top of him. I knew he’d be safer with me holding him into the boat because it was really choppy. At times we were thrown a good couple of feet off the deck of the boat by some of the waves.

‘I started talking to him, asking where he came from, where he was heading, what he was doing – anything to take his mind off what was going on around him. If you just talk to somebody and get them to think outside of where their head space is, you can sometimes pull somebody around. And it helped because he chirped up a bit.’

Jamie stayed on the yacht while a paramedic from the rescue helicopter was winched down into the lifeboat to assess the sailor’s condition. It took a few attempts for the paramedic to land in the lifeboat because of the sea conditions and it was then decided that it would be safer to take the sailor and paramedic back to Clovelly in the lifeboat.

Back up arrives

Appledore inshore lifeboat crew soon arrived on the scene too. Knowing the sailor was in safe hands, the lifeboat crew now needed to assist Jamie with the yacht and determine whether it was seaworthy enough to motor back to Appledore or required a tow. 

The yacht was still in autopilot heading south due to the priority of getting the casualty to safety. The Appledore crew came alongside the yacht and managed to indicate to Jamie what the plan was so he could turn the yacht around and start heading in the right direction.

Appledore Crew Member Del Elesmore was then transferred across to the yacht to assist Jamie and assess the condition of the yacht.

Appledore Crew Member Del Elesmore

Photo: Appledore RNLI

Del Elesmore, Crew Member at Appledore RNLI

‘The transfer was pretty bouncy, but we practice it quite a lot,’ recalls Del. ‘It was a case of getting the inshore lifeboat alongside and pinning it against the yacht for long enough for me to cross over. You’ve got to have your wits about you and you’ve got to get the timing right. Once the helm has said you can go, you just pick your moment and go for it.

‘Obviously Jamie had been single-handed before I joined him on the yacht and couldn’t leave the helm, so we worked together to ensure the yacht was safe and seaworthy. 

‘As there was nothing wrong with the vessel, and with sea conditions being quite bumpy and blustery, we decided it was safer and quicker to motor the yacht back to Appledore rather than tow it.’ 

By this time, Appledore’s all-weather lifeboat crew had safely arrived after the lifeboat successfully refloated.

So that Jamie could be taken back to Clovelly Lifeboat Station, which was en route to Appledore, he was transferred across to the Appledore inshore lifeboat.

Appledore Crew Member Carl Chessum was then transferred from the all-weather lifeboat to the yacht to help Del bring the yacht to Appledore Lifeboat Station, guided safely by Coxswain Martin Cox in the all-weather lifeboat.

‘It was quite a long passage back,’ explains Del. ‘We were making about 8 or 9 knots. We used the all-weather lifeboat as a kind of handrail to keep us on track.’

They eventually arrived back at Appledore Lifeboat Station at 5.30am where the yacht was placed on the station’s reserve mooring.

Meanwhile, Clovelly lifeboat crew had arrived safely back at the station where the casualty was checked over by the helicopter paramedic before being transferred into the care of an awaiting ambulance team.

A successful joint effort – and first shout

It was after 5am when the Clovelly lifeboat crew were stood down and after 6am for the Appledore lifeboat crews – just in time for a day’s work.

‘I was a bit bleary-eyed but, being self-employed, I have to go to work,’ says Del. ‘It’s not the first time we’ve been out all night. You just come back, have a cup of tea and get on with it.

‘It’s always good to work with our flanking stations and the other emergency services. It was a good shout. Everybody was safe and we had a successful outcome.’

Although tired, Marc also felt enthused by his first shout. ‘The adrenaline was pumping! Once we got back to the station and I knew that the casualty was safe with other people, it hit home what had just happened. And then the realisation that I had to be at work in an hour!

‘The crew said I did a good job and that it was a baptism of fire for me for a first shout! I feel very proud to have been involved in the rescue and be a part of the RNLI. It’s very inspiring.’

Clovelly Crew Member Marc Baker having a cup of tea at the lifeboat station after a long shout

Photo: Clovelly RNLI

Marc having a well-deserved cuppa at the lifeboat station after the long shout

This wasn’t only Marc’s first shout. It was the first time he’d been able to answer the pager since being involved in a cycling accident in which he almost lost his life. 

‘Funnily enough, the week I had my accident was the week I was taken off of shore crew and put onto the lifeboat. It was quite a long time before I was fit enough to go back near the boat. It may sound strange, but my accident has actually been a really positive experience. I now look at things just a little bit differently and never take anything for granted.’ 

Sailing safety

The experienced sailor was on passage from Portishead to Portugal when he unfortunately got seasick.

A yacht on Appledore Lifeboat Station’s reserve mooring following the rescue of its owner

Photo: RNLI/Marc Baker

The yacht on Appledore Lifeboat Station’s reserve mooring the day after the rescue

Seasickness can happen to anybody,’ says Marc. ‘I think if he’d been out there a couple of hours longer it would’ve been a lot more serious for him because he was diabetic.’

‘Getting sick or having an accident is one of the disadvantages of doing anything single-handed,’ Del says. ‘I chatted to the gentleman a couple of days later when we were out training as his yacht was still on our reserve mooring. He was reconsidering his plans. I think he realised he’d missed the long stable weather he’d need to get down to Portugal this year.’

Life-threatening incidents can happen at any time, no matter how experienced you are. If you love sailing or motorboating, or are thinking of learning, take a look at our top boating safety tips.