Appledore rescue: Danger rising

As a frightened young couple shelter in a sea cave, powerful swells break over the rocks and the tide rises towards them. Will local lifeboat volunteers reach the trapped teens in time?

Appledore B class lifeboat

Nicholas Leach

When a warm afternoon turned to cool evening in north Devon on 31 May, Appledore lifeboat crew were already looking back on a day of rescue drama. A group of young bodyboarders and a parent had been plucked from the River Torridge – left unaided, they would have been swept out to sea. But the lifesaving work wasn’t over for the day: at 6.15pm, pagers rang out across the village once again. 

Helm Nick Ayres was one of the first to arrive at the station, along with his fellow Crew Member (and wife) Sam, plus Mark Williams and Matt Rowe. ‘Two young people were cut off by the tide at Westward Ho!’ says Nick, who powered the lifeboat to sea. Offshore, the conditions were relatively calm, but as the crew started scouring the cliff base for the teens, they witnessed a different story.

‘Every now and then these large sets of waves came through, which were breaking against the rocks,’ explains Matt. At first, spotting the pair against the dark shoreline was tricky, but then the crew saw a moving pinpoint of bright light: a mobile phone torch was being waved in desperation.

After getting close enough to shout reassurance to the two young people and ask them to stay back from the sea, the crew talked through their options. Nick was reluctant to risk taking the inflatable lifeboat and her crew too close to the shallow waters, rocks and breaking waves – a helicopter lift could prove a safer option for everyone. ‘We contacted the Coastguard but they reported it would be at least 30 minutes for a helicopter to arrive. That was 30 minutes the kids didn’t have,’ says Matt. ‘The tide was rising and it wouldn’t be long before they’d be in the water with waves breaking over them. And the girl couldn’t swim.’ 

It was time for plan B – the lifeboat was the only hope. The crew dropped an anchor and Nick steadily reversed in towards the cave. When they came within 20m of the shoreline, Matt volunteered to enter the water and swim to the casualties. ‘It’s the first time I have done that in a rescue, but I’m a confident sea swimmer so it made sense,’ says Matt, who took with him a throwbag and line that was attached to the lifeboat. ‘As I swam towards the cave, all I was thinking was that I needed a foothold as soon as possible,’ he recalls.

Appledore Crew Member Matt Rowe

Photo: Mark Williams

Appledore Crew Member Matt Rowe

Reaching the shore, Matt steadied himself on a large boulder and quickly explained the plan to the two young people, who were by now up to their knees in rising water and being buffeted by waves. He took the teenage girl back first – she held tight as Mark and Sam hauled them towards the lifeboat and then pulled her aboard. ‘My return journey was a bit tougher,’ says Matt, who was almost caught by breaking waves as he headed back to the cave, and had to shelter behind a stone ledge. Finding a foothold again, he helped the teenage boy into the sea while Nick continued to steady the lifeboat and Sam helped Mark pull the rope. Within seconds, the second casualty and Matt were safely aboard.

By now the Appledore all-weather lifeboat had arrived as backup, and the cold, shocked teens were transferred onto that larger craft so they could shelter in the wheelhouse. They were whisked back to shore for a check-over by paramedics, who declared them safe and well once they had warmed up. Meanwhile, on the smaller B class lifeboat, the crew took a moment to tidy up their craft and reflect on the rescue. ‘I haven’t been on the crew for that long and it was fantastic to put the training and kit to such good use,’ says Matt. ‘I dread to think what would have happened if they hadn’t managed to call for help.’ 

Later the lifeboat station received a message from the boy’s dad: ‘I just want to say a huge thank you for assisting my son and his girlfriend earlier this evening. I honestly cannot thank you enough.’ His gratitude is echoed by the station’s volunteer Lifeboat Operations Manager Tony Merrill, who thanked all the volunteers involved in the rescues that day. ‘Due to the commitment and dedication of all those involved, six members of the public will be walking away from the incidents with no more than a bad memory and will be able to get on with the rest of their lives,’ says Tony. ‘To me, that is the very essence of what we are about and why you as a crew put so much time and commitment into the station and the service we provide.’

‘It dawned on us that they were really, really lucky’

Nick Ayres, Helm, Appledore

Appledore Crew Member Nick Ayres

‘It’s not often my wife Sam and I get on the same shout, as one of us usually looks after the kids, but my mother-in-law was there that day, so she kindly took them. I was proud of the crew because it was all done so calmly and professionally – no screaming or shouting. Taking the boat in was tricky. You have to keep the right tension on the anchor so it holds. If you get it wrong and a wave comes through, it’s a lifeboat and four crew that could end up on the rocks. When Sam and I got home we had a can of beer and a chat. It dawned on us then that they (the rescued teens) were really, really lucky.’

Don’t get caught out

The pair rescued by the Appledore crew aren’t alone – coastal walkers of all ages get into difficulty all year round.

Always check the weather and tides. 
Be wary of all edges around the sea and waterside. Slips and falls happen in all locations; it’s not just high cliff edges that are a risk. 
Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back.
Take care when walking in dark and slippery conditions. 
Always take a means of calling for help. 
If you see someone in trouble at the coast, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.

Crew members like Nick and Sam aren't the only volunteers who save lives with the RNLI. Rescues like these are only possible because of volunteers in all kinds of roles: from fundraising to medical advice. See how you could help.