A paddle too far: Skerries rescue

How many people does it take to save a life? As a mother and son found out this summer, it can take a village

Skerries Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat Louis Simson at sea.

Photo: Nicholas Leach

It was almost 5am on Tuesday 14 August when the crew at Skerries Lifeboat Station were woken by their pagers. A family of five had raised the call for help after waking up on their vessel to find its mooring had broken overnight.

The family were safe but stranded, so the lifeboat crew powered out to sea to watch over them until the tide crept back in, helping ease the boat afloat again.

As they hung up their wet-weather gear to dry, the crew were looking forward to heading home for something to eat after their early morning callout. But there would be no time to relax.

‘I came back to the lifeboat station to finish up some paperwork,’ Crew Member David Knight recalls. ‘Our Lifeboat Operations Manager was here with me when, suddenly, his pager went off. The crew who had just left the station had to turn around and before we knew it we were preparing to head back out to sea.’

Information began to come in reporting a person in distress off Gormanston Beach – approximately 10 miles from the lifeboat station. ‘We were given a vague area, but the beach is very long so we didn’t know exactly where the casualty was,’ explains Crew Member Emma Wilson.

Joe May, Crew Member

‘We knew we’d have to keep the boy calm and under control as we approached him because he could have panicked – he could have let go of the paddleboard, or tried to swim to shore. But you could see he was hypothermic and had definitely had a fright – it was starting to kick in for him, how far he was out at sea.

‘I was afraid he would fall unconscious so I just kept talking to him. I asked: “Where are you from? What football team do you support? What are doing while you’re here in Ireland?’ I’m a publican, so I’m well practised at the chat!”

With David at the helm, the lifeboat volunteers directed the B class lifeboat Louis Simson towards the beach and waited for further updates to come through on the radio.

Crew Member Johnny Tanner says: ‘We heard that a fisherman may have brought the casualty onboard their vessel, so I thought: “OK, we’re looking for a fishing boat” – any bearing you can get really helps.’

As the Skerries crew approached the beach, they discovered there were two casualties – a young paddleboarder and a swimmer.

Skerries lifeboat crew

Photo: RNLI/Jasmin Downs

From left to right: David Knight, Emma Wilson, Johnny Tanner, Joe May

‘He was freezing, unable to move’

The paddleboarder, a 13-year-old boy, was on holiday from the UK with his mother. The family were visiting to enjoy the Fleadh Cheoil festival, and spend some time at the beach.

While his mum watched from the sand, the teenager went out on his paddleboard – but soon began to drift dangerously far out to sea. A local swimmer spotted him and swam out to help.

‘They must have been almost a mile offshore by the time we reached them,’ David remembers. ‘The conditions must have just changed out there.’

Although the paddleboarder had been well kitted-out with a wetsuit and buoyancy aid, he’d been out on the water for around 45 minutes and the cold was beginning to take hold of him. ‘The young lad was just freezing,’ Emma recalls. ‘The swimmer had helped him get back up onto his board, but after that he was unable to move.’

After the 10 minutes it took for the Skerries crew to reach the scene, it took less than 10 seconds to pull both the paddleboarder and the swimmer out of the water and into the lifeboat.

‘The swimmer was very competent,’ Crew Member Joe May remembers. ‘When we pulled him into the lifeboat, he wasn’t showing any signs of distress and wasn’t in any immediate trouble himself.’ 

With the teenager safely in the crew’s care, the volunteers were happy for the swimmer to make his way back to the beach. ‘We made sure he got to shore safely before we headed back to the lifeboat station with the young lad,’ Joe continues. ‘We got the paddleboarder wrapped up and I sat up on the front of the boat with him, chatting to him to keep him conscious.’

A thumbnail from the Skerries rescue video
Skerries crew pull the paddleboarder into the lifeboat

‘I can just imagine how she felt’ 

Meanwhile, back on the beach, the boy’s mum was left alone as she watched her son get taken away onboard the lifeboat. 

‘Once she had realised the boy was getting blown out by the wind, the mother had put her wetsuit on and got into the water,’ Johnny explains. ‘She realised how far he was and had to turn back – but in her hurry to get in the sea, she had also taken her car key fob with her. The water had damaged it and she couldn’t get her car to start.’ 

‘I can just imagine how she felt – seeing your child literally drift away and suddenly a helicopter and a lifeboat appear,’ Joe continues. ‘And then just watching us turn around and go [back to the lifeboat station] … ’ 

‘After we had reached the station, the boy gave me his mother’s phone number. She explained what had happened to her car and we had to think about how to collect her from Gormanston’. 

‘The Coast Guard drove to the beach and picked her up in their Jeep – she was really fraught at that stage, so it was good of them to help us get her back. 

‘It was a bit emotional when she got reunited with her son. I walked out of our crew room to leave them to it, because I’m sure there would have been a few tears.’

Emma Wilson, Crew Member

Fourteen hours is a long time to be on service for any lifeboat volunteer – but for Crew Member Emma Wilson, it’s just another day at the office. By day, she is a firefighter – and at the time of writing this interview, Emma had just finished a full night shift at the fire station before arriving back at the lifeboat station on just 2 hours’ sleep.

‘Once we had the paddleboarder onboard the lifeboat, he just wanted to hide out of the way of the wind and be warm again. He couldn’t go to the hospital until his mother arrived at the lifeboat station, because he’s a minor. But by the time she got here, he had actually warmed up so he was well enough not to go to hospital. Our Lifeboat Medical Advisor was at the station with us, and once the paramedics got here they were also happy that he was safe to enjoy the rest of his holiday.’

‘A special place in our hearts’ 

A note sent later to the crew reads: ‘To everyone involved in helping us on Tuesday, thank you seems hardly enough. I have no idea what we would have done without you, but I’m sure the outcome may not have been the same. As a family, we have always supported the RNLI, but you will now always have a special place in our hearts. You brought our son home.’

Whether you’re visiting an area for the first time or know a stretch of coast like the back of your hand, conditions can change instantly – so always check tide times and carry a means of calling for help. Get more coastal safety tips.