Cut off by the tide: 'There was no signal, we panicked'

When two walkers become trapped between rising seawater and 30m cliffs, a rescue involving a kayaker and two lifeboats ensues. 
Waves batter the shore near Portwrinkle on the Cornish coast

Photo: Shutterstock

Waves batter the shore near Portwrinkle on the Cornish coast

A week’s walking – the 25 miles between Cremyll near Plymouth and Polperro – was the penultimate stage of Christine Bright and Mollie Hemens’s epic coastal adventure. They were experienced walkers, having already walked 600 miles of the South West Coast Path over the last 10 years.

Christine (58) and Mollie (71) stepped off the bus at Tregantle in late September, planning to start their week with a 5-mile walk back to their car in Downderry. But one misjudgement and their plans unravelled. 

Shortly before 5pm, a kayaker reported seeing two people stranded on a headland east of Portwrinkle Beach. Both Looe lifeboats were immediately scrambled.

Looe lifeboats launch to the rescue

Photo: RNLI/Ian Foster

Looe lifeboats launch to the rescue

‘The casualties were in the middle of a large area of rock,’ says Clive Palfrey, Helm of Looe’s B class Atlantic lifeboat Sheila & Dennis Tongue II, which was first to arrive. ‘The tide was coming in fast and they were below the high tide mark, so we had to get them off quickly. I decided to put one of my crew ashore to assess the situation.'

Helm Clive Palfrey

Photo: RNLI/Ian Foster

Helm Clive Palfrey

Taking the grab bag and a radio, experienced lifeboatman Brian Bowdler jumped into the sea and swam 10m to the shore, where he discovered not two casualties, but three – Christine and Mollie, plus Mollie’s 11-year-old border terrier Parker.

Putting his fear of dogs to one side, Brian checked that the casualties were OK then radioed Clive and Victoria Thomas onboard the lifeboat. With assistance, the casualties could be moved to the water’s edge – but they’d need the station’s smaller D class lifeboat Ollie Naismith to get them off the rocks.

Because of where they were located, D class Helm Matt Jaycock couldn’t just drop the anchor and reverse in – the method he’d normally use. Instead, he'd have to drive in bow first and negotiate a route around the rocks to reach them. ‘There was a bit of swell, so we waited for a couple of big waves to come through, then got in before the next ones arrived,’ Matt explains. He touched the bow on the rocks, allowing Crew Member Jack Spree to step ashore.

D class Helm Matt Jaycock

Photo: RNLI Looe

D class Helm Matt Jaycock

‘It’s lucky we got there when we did,’ Matt recalls. ‘The rocks levelled off higher up the shore, so 30 minutes later we wouldn’t have had enough depth to reach them.’

Matt held the boat against the rocks with the engine in gear while Goron Wilkes-Jones, the third member of his crew, helped Brian and Jack get the two women and their dog into the lifeboat.

‘With the waves coming in, we couldn’t afford to be alongside the rocks for very long. It felt like minutes, but it was only seconds.’

The rocks barring Christine and Mollie’s way

Photo: Christine Bright

The rocks barring Christine and Mollie’s way

The lifeboat crew reversed out and took the casualties back to the beach at Downderry, where they were reunited with their car. Parker became best friends with the Looe Coastguard, who provided him with a welcome bowl of water. Christine and Mollie, although a bit damp, were otherwise untroubled by their ordeal – they were out on the coast path again the very next day. Parker was there too, as he has been every step of the way.

Clive says: ‘I thanked the kayaker for taking the action he did. Two hours later and it would have been dark. He definitely helped us save Christine and Mollie’s lives that day.

Mollie and Christine, with Parker the border terrier, revisit the lifeboat that rescued them

Photo: RNLI/Ian Foster

Mollie and Christine, with Parker the border terrier, revisit the lifeboat that rescued them

'I never thought I'd need the RNLI'

Christine says: ‘We’d read that you could walk along the beach at low tide and rejoin the coast path at Portwrinkle. From the tide tables, we thought we had time. It was only after we reached rocks that we considered turning back. We were persuaded to carry on after we got talking to some other ladies who were doing the same walk.

‘We scrambled over the rocks to another sandy beach. Half way across a second group of rocks, the tide was coming in behind us. I could see a high rocky outcrop with a ravine up ahead. I didn’t know how we’d get through that. By now, the water was up against the rocks we’d climbed over. The rocks were slippery and we were making slow progress so we decided to stop and phone for help. When there was no signal, that’s when we started to panic.

‘I tried unsuccessfully to flag down some surfers. I waved a map in their direction and shouted but they didn’t see or hear me. Then I got the attention of a kayaker. I was desperate he didn’t lose sight of me. I thought: "If I disappear, he’ll think I’m OK". He came over to speak to us. He reassured us that we were safe, then went off to get help.

‘Although I don't live far from the coast, I'm not a great fan of the sea. I never thought I would need the services of the lifeboat. I have always admired the volunteer members of the RNLI but this experience made me realise just how many people had their Saturday afternoon disrupted because of us.’

How to stay safe

Getting cut off by the tide is a common cause of lifeboat launches. Always check the weather and tides before you set off. Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Take care when walking in dark and slippery conditions. And always take a means of calling for help.

You can learn more about checking tide conditions on our safety pages.

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