Mudeford: Clinging to survival

When his craft hit a wave and flipped him into the chilly November sea, a boater was left holding on for dear life. Could anyone help him – or even see him?

Mudeford's inshore lifeboat powering through the waves

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

‘I was just about to put on my hairnet and get baking when the call came,’ recalls caterer and Crew Member Mel Varvel. Pagers alerted Mel and her fellow Mudeford volunteers just after 2pm on 5 November. 

Once at the station, the crew of four discovered what the emergency was: a passer-by at Southbourne Beach had spotted an upturned boat out at sea, with someone clinging to it in the cold swells. The crew pulled on their kit and launched their Atlantic 85 lifeboat immediately. 

‘My role on the way there was to keep in touch with the Coastguard on the radio,’ says Crew Member Simon Smith, who was aboard along with Mel, Crew Member Ian Derham and Helm/Station Mechanic Ian Parker. 

Crew members at Mudeford Lifeboat Station

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

The crew on the rescue: Simon Smith, Ian Parker, Ian Derham and Mel Varvel

Simon discovered they had some welcome help from a another set of volunteers too: ‘We had been told roughly where the boat was, but then we heard that the National Coastwatch Institution had people in the lookout at Hengistbury Head. That was extremely handy.’ 

Simon radioed the Coastwatch volunteers – who had recently restarted the local service for the first time in years – and they gave the exact location of the boat, clearly visible from their elevated position on the headland.

That led the crew directly to the upturned boat, with a man in his 70s desperately holding on to its outboard motor. ‘One of the first things that goes through your mind is, can he speak? Is there anyone else with him?’ recalls Crew Member Ian Derham. ‘Luckily he was able to shout to us that it was just him.’ 

Meanwhile Helm Ian Parker considered the best way to approach in the conditions – the sea was fairly choppy and an icy offshore wind blew. ‘The man was really cold and reluctant to release his grip, so we couldn’t throw him a line. We also realised that his boat was anchored. When he went over, his anchor must have been loose on the deck and fallen out. That prevented the boat – and the man – from being blown out to sea.’ 

The crew discovered the upturned boat

Photo: RNLI Mudeford

The rescue footage shows the sailor's upturned boat

As the boat wasn’t moving around too much, Helm Ian felt he could get alongside the man without risking crushing him. 

While he carefully approached, Crew Members Simon and Ian prepared to lift the casualty from under his arms. ‘He didn’t want to let go at first,’ says Simon. ‘His hands were all hard and tight – he was scared and cold. I don’t think he would have lasted much longer. And when we did coax him to let us help him aboard, he was really difficult to lift because he had a heavy coat on.’ 

Mel joined the effort and the trio managed to pull the man onto the Atlantic 85. ‘We tried to keep that cold wind off him by sitting him on the deck, giving him a survivor’s blanket and shielding him,’ says Crew Member Ian.

The Mudeford crew look after the casualty, who was extremely cold and had swallowed some water

Photo: RNLI Mudeford

The crew look after the casualty, who was very cold and had swallowed water

The rescue wasn’t over yet. Although Mel knew from her casualty care training that the man was not quite hypothermic, he was extremely cold and had swallowed some water. ‘He had tried to swim for shore a couple of times and gone under,’ she explains. 

Helm Ian Parker headed back to the station. and the man was stretchered into the care of paramedics. 

‘He was very fortunate,’ reflects Crew Member Ian Derham. ‘If his anchor hadn’t fallen out, if someone hadn’t spotted him, if we didn’t get to him when we did … it would have been very different.’ 

‘That anchor saved his life,’ agrees Helm Ian Parker. ‘The teamwork did too. Coastguard, Coastwatch, NHS, RNLI. I had three highly trained crew behind me – communicating, rescuing, caring for the casualty. It was a great team effort.’

Crew Member Mel Marvel adds: 'The casualty was OK after being checked over by the paramedics and came back to the station on exercise night to say thank you. He was so lucky – he hadn’t taken out a lifejacket or means of calling for help with him, which everyone should do when they go afloat.’

If you're planning a boat trip, check out our safety tips before you set off. 

You can help save lives at sea with a donation today. From kit to crew training to kids’ education, you’ll be making a real difference to our volunteers – and the people they save.

Donate today