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Rock angling: A matter of life and death

Lifeboat crews and the rock angling community are no strangers to death and near misses. Here they share their stories and speak out on safety.

Rock angler at sunset

RNLI/Nigel Millard

‘This is going to stay with me forever’

Even the most experienced of anglers can find themselves in danger. Appledore lifeboat Crew Member James Atkinson shares his story so that others can learn from it.

Appledore RNLI Crew Member James Atkinson

RNLI/Nigel Millard

Crew Member James Atkinson, Appledore RNLI

‘My cousin Josh, brother Tom and I were fishing at Sandy Cove in the middle of the night in January when things took a serious turn for the worse.

‘The spot we were on was separated from the shore by a 3-4m gully and the tide built more rapidly than we’d anticipated.’

Unable to get a signal to call the emergency services, James saw a gap where the swell had opened up. He went for it.

‘I got almost all the way across before the swell knocked me off my feet,’ James recalls. ‘I was being repeatedly pushed under the water and, within seconds, I was 20-30m out to sea.’

Reconstruction of a person in the water calling for help using a VHF radio

RNLI/Nigel Millard

Reconstruction of a person in the water calling for help using a VHF radio

Thoughts raced through James’s head in the panic. ‘I’m a dead man. They have no way of raising the alarm for me. I’m never going to see my family again.

‘Thankfully the crew training kicked in. I calmed myself, and flipped onto my back to float.’

Then, a blessing: the swell picked James up and dumped him next to the rock. He managed to grab hold and clamber up.

His brother and cousin were still stranded, with a rising tide. Injured, James hobbled in pain for half a mile to find a signal to call the Coastguard. Ilfracombe lifeboat launched to the rescue.

James wants others to learn from his mistake: ‘This is going to stay with me forever. It’s madness, but we’re quite happy to spend money on a reel, a rod, something that will help us catch fish. But we don’t want to spend the money on something that could save our lives.

‘I’m investing in a PLB - a personal locator beacon. With a PLB, you can still make that distress call, wherever you are.

‘Even I didn’t own a lifejacket for fishing from the shore. So I’ll be getting a lifejacket too. There has to be a culture change.’

The crew’s perspective

In February this year, the angling community was struck by tragedy when 42-year-old Kirk Lorimer fell from the cliffs at Tintagel, Cornwall.

Despite the best efforts of the Port Isaac lifeboat crew, Kirk lost his life.

‘You never become completely numb to shouts like this; it stays very real for all of us,’ says Helm Damien Bolton.

Helm Damien Bolton, Port Isaac RNLI

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Helm Damien Bolton, Port Isaac RNLI

‘Assuming Kirk had survived the fall, a lifejacket could have kept his head above water and prevented him from drowning.

'It doesn’t matter how good a swimmer you are, if you get knocked out on the way down or hit the cold water and that shock takes over, you can’t do anything.

‘We’re not saying to stop doing what you love, we get it. And we’re not saying that a lifejacket is a fail-safe, there are never any guarantees with the sea. But wearing a lifejacket is the single best thing you can do to increase your chance of surviving. It’s absolutely essential.’

It was Crew Member Mark Grills’s first body recovery. He says: ‘It’s not just the loss of your life. It’s all the people who will feel that loss.’

Water safety talks with the RNLI

Kirk’s friends in the angling community responded by organising a safety talk with an RNLI volunteer community safety officer.

To arrange one for your watersports group, contact your nearest lifeboat station or call us on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland).

‘We anglers are a stubborn bunch’

TV presenter and sea angler Henry Gilbey is a familiar face in the fishing world.

TV presenter and sea angler Henry Gilbey at the RNLI Sea Survival Centre in Poole, Dorset

RNLI/Nathan Williams

TV presenter and sea angler Henry Gilbey at the RNLI Sea Survival Centre in Poole, Dorset

In September 2017, two brothers died when sea angling at Treyarnon in north Cornwall. The tragedy, in one of Henry’s favourite local spots, led him to get in touch with the RNLI to talk safety.

‘We anglers are a stubborn bunch who, for the most part, reckon we know what we’re doing and tend to get away with thinking that it’s never going to happen to us.

‘How many of us here have had near misses when you know deep down that you were lucky to get away with it?

‘The tragedy up on the north coast of Cornwall really hit home with how horribly easy it is for something to go so wrong.’

So Henry came with some fellow anglers to our Sea Survival Centre in Poole, Dorset, to experience what it’s like falling into choppy seas with - and without - a lifejacket on.

Anglers experiencing what it’s like to fall into the water with and without a lifejacket at the RNLI Sea Survival Centre

RNLI/Nathan Williams

Anglers experiencing what it’s like to fall into the water with and without a lifejacket at the RNLI Sea Survival Centre
‘As safe as the environment was, let me tell you how bloody horrible it is when you are in the water, and now you’ve got water breaking into your face, and in no time at all you start spluttering and gagging and spitting - and you can’t get enough air in your lungs and you’re not thinking straight. It’s scary how fast you expend energy in the water.

‘For far too long I have studiously avoided thinking about what might happen if I get washed into the sea - and how I might give myself a better chance at being alive when rescue comes. I am not proud of this.’
Henry is now reviewing different models of lifejackets to see which suits him best.

‘I am not here to tell anybody what to do. But I would urge you to at least try and see one of these modern lifejackets and understand just how easy they are to wear.

‘The unavoidable fact is that wearing a lifejacket when you are out shore fishing will give you as much time as possible to survive if you end up in the water.’
Rock angler wearing a headtorch at dusk

RNLI/Nigel Millard

Fishing safety tips

  • Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
  • Carry a means of calling for help. Depending on where you’re going, this may mean a VHF radio.
  • A personal locator beacon (PLB) can be used to raise the alarm and alert rescuers to your location if you’re swept out to sea. Read more in our guide to calling for help (PDF 503KB).
  • If someone is in trouble, do not enter the water. Instead call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.

For more advice on fishing safely, visit our angling pages.