Sudden sinking: Penarth rescue

At sea, things can go very wrong very quickly, as Penarth lifeboat crew found out on 12 June.
RNLI Penarth's Atlantic 85 B class lifeboat

Steve Bendell

Kath Fisher couldn’t sleep. Tossing and turning, she thought: ‘Is this an omen that something’s about to happen?’ At 1.15am, her lifeboat crew pager went off.

Volunteers all around Penarth and Barry Dock shook themselves awake and headed for their lifeboat stations. It was a mayday call – a fishing boat with two onboard, taking on water at notorious black spot Lavernock Point.

Penarth crew were first on scene, in their rigid inflatable B class lifeboat. Crew Member Matt Church went aboard the fishing boat, with a salvage pump. The crew took the leaking craft under tow and made for shore. They’d be back in bed in no time.

But it wasn’t to be. ‘Once we turned head to sea, it was obvious that there was something catastrophically wrong,’ Matt recalls. ‘In under a minute, the cabin was full of water. I got both guys on deck to make sure there was no risk of entrapment. Then one of them told me he’d had a serious operation about a month before. I radioed across: “We need to get off the boat right now.” Within a minute, the boat sank vertically, and we kicked off the back as it disappeared.’

Kath says: ‘That was the worst moment. I didn’t know if they’d got off or if any of them were trapped in the cabin.’ She quickly cut the tow rope, and Helm Owain Davies turned the lifeboat round. To their relief, they saw three people in the water.

Drifting away

Matt and the fishermen, Andy and Jason, hadn’t had a chance to fully inflate their lifejackets. As Matt struggled to support two men in the water, Kath jumped in to help. She grabbed Jason and got him to the side of the B class lifeboat, before swimming back to Matt and Andy, who had by now inflated their lifejackets. ‘We had trust in our equipment, and we knew Barry Dock were on their way,’ Kath says. ‘We felt quite safe.’ But they were drifting into darkness.

The two crew onboard the lifeboat struggled to pull Jason over the high sponson. They would have had to do it very gently, considering the surgery he’d just had. So Crew Member James King jumped over the side to support him, and wait for the lower-to-the-water D class lifeboat, which soon arrived, along with the reassuring bulk of Barry Dock’s Trent class all-weather lifeboat.

While James and the D class crew carefully got Jason aboard, the Barry Dock lifeboat crew set off a flare to find the drifting trio. Overhead, the Coastguard helicopter had eyes on those below.

Barry Dock Coxswain Martin Bowmer got close to Matt, Kath and Andy, in a rocky area with just over a metre of water under his keel. The three clambered aboard. ‘We train with Barry Dock often, and it was a welcome sight to see a lifeboat with a wheelhouse and some heating!’ Matt recalls. James and Jason were then brought aboard from the D class.

‘Andy was cold but in good spirits and he recovered quickly,’ Martin says. ‘Jason was in a worse state, but given we were only 10 minutes from Barry Dock, the best thing to do was get him to the waiting ambulance. In the warmth of the wheelhouse, with a blanket around him, he perked up quickly and was able to walk off the boat himself.’

Finishing the job

Jason and Andy were taken to hospital to be checked over, but as they weren’t in any immediate danger there was time to drop James, Matt and Kath off in Penarth. It was 2.30am.

But the night was still young for our volunteers. After a round of tea and a raid of the station chocolate supplies, there were boats to be washed down, equipment to be repacked, and a debrief to be had. ‘We need to check the wellbeing of our crew, and review our performance,’ Martin explains.

In Penarth, the tradition after an overnight shout is to take a group photo at sunrise. The crew flagged down a jogger to snap the shot. ‘She must have thought it was the weirdest stag do she’d ever seen,’ quips Kath.

Many of the crew went straight to work, where what they had done sank in. Matt says: ‘Having two people’s lives in your hands, you do think about it in your daily life afterwards for a few days.’

So the crew were delighted to see Andy and Jason again, fit and well, when they called down to Penarth’s Tuesday evening training night. A couple of days later, Kath told a group of local fundraisers: ‘When Andy shook my hand and said: “You saved my life,” he wasn’t just thanking me, he was thanking you guys as well. Because without the supporters, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.’

'It only takes a few seconds'

Andy says: ‘I was worried about Jason all the time. He’d been a bit down since the operation – that’s the reason I took him out fishing that night. The lifeboat crew are special to me now. They saved my life and I can’t thank them enough. I can go home and see my grandchildren because of them. People should wear lifejackets all the time while at sea. Because it only takes seconds for a boat to go down, like mine did.’

Going angling? Whether you cast from the shore, a kayak or a boat, take a look at our tips to help you fish safely

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