Porthcawl: One false move

Crew Member Martin Lightwood talks about a challenging call out for the Porthcawl crew, to an angler with head and spinal injuries on the side of a cliff.

On the ropes: Tangled kitesurfer rescued by Porthcawl RNLI.

It was a warm August day. We’d just got back from a shout to a stranded kitesurfer when the pagers went off, so we launched the B class again as the boat was ready to go. When you know you’re going to Ogmore Deeps, you think the worst. It’s a popular fishing spot but the rocky cliffs can make it treacherous. Some of the cliff areas are inaccessible by land so we’re often the first on scene.

When we learned the casualty had a suspected spinal injury, the pressure mounted. When you’re giving first aid, you’ve got to get it right but when it’s a spinal injury, it’s critical. One false move could have life-changing consequences.

Porthcawl Crew Member Martin Lightwood

Photo: RNLI/Steve Jones

Porthcawl Crew Member Martin Lightwood 

A challenging start

We reached the Deeps in about 6 minutes, but the big swell and the rocks made it too dangerous for the lifeboat to reach the shore. This meant we had to swim about 12m with the first aid equipment.

We knew we’d have a bit of a fight on our hands; the waves were crashing against the rocks and swimming in a drysuit isn’t the easiest thing to do at the best of times. But we had complete trust in Helm Joe Missen. On his command, Crew Members Chris Kitney, Chris ‘Bee’ Missen and I jumped into the water. 

Between us we had a first aid kit and a 2m-long rigid stretcher weighing 10kg. Once we reached the rocks, we then had a 10m climb up the cliff face to reach the casualty. It was awkward, but improvisation and teamwork got us to the top.

The casualty was sitting up on the rocks. The person he was with explained what happened. They were going down to fish, but the casualty lost his footing and tumbled around 9–12m.

I began talking to him to quickly establish how he was. He had a slight head injury but was complaining of excruciating pain in his neck, at the top of his back and down his arms. So I immediately knelt behind him to support his weight and hold his head to keep his neck and back as still and straight as possible.

After about 10 minutes, Chris swapped with me while I took over the first aid. It was quite painful supporting the casualty in the position we were in. Our legs went numb from sitting on bent knees and ankles. But we knew we had a job to do.

It was pretty tense knowing any slight movement could result in further damage. The adrenaline was flowing and when you’ve got to hold someone still, having a lot of adrenaline isn’t a good thing.

We used the RNLI check cards to assess and monitor the casualty’s condition. The cards cover every aspect of injury, illness and immersion and help us to determine whether a casualty needs immediate medical attention.

The casualty’s vitals remained pretty good but the pain in his neck, back and arms got progressively worse. We kept talking to him to try and take his mind off the pain and to make sure he wasn’t going downhill.

Still from Porthcawl RNLI rescue footage

Photo: Porthcawl RNLI

Stills from Porthcawl RNLI's rescue footage

Backup arrives

The Coastguard [Llantwit Major Coastguard Team] and paramedics [Ambulance Hazardous Area Response Team (HART)] arrived at the top of the cliff about 10 minutes after us. Bee had to scramble up the cliff and guide them down to us.

During this time, a second lifeboat crew from Porthcawl had arrived to help equipped with a second first aid kit. On the crew were Crew Members Alex Denny and Simon Emms plus Helm Carl Evans who waited in the D class.

After the paramedics assessed the casualty, it was decided his injuries were too serious to stretcher him up the cliff to the road. The safest and quickest way would be by rescue helicopter.

Moving the casualty

So then we all helped to prepare the casualty for evacuation. It was an anxious time for everyone, including the casualty who was still in a lot of pain, and by this time was also complaining of numbness in his arms.

Chris continued to support the casualty’s head while the paramedic put a rigid neck brace on him. We were then able to lie the casualty back onto a shortened spinal board – it’s about half the size of a person – to support his spine. Next, we transferred the casualty onto a stretcher. You have to move a casualty’s body like a log so the body stays in one long line. You log roll them onto their side, move the stretcher as close as you can to the casualty, and then log roll them back onto it.

When the Coastguard helicopter arrived, we helped to transfer the casualty onto their stretcher. The helicopter was hovering pretty low above us to minimise the movement of the casualty when he was winched up into it. But Alex and I then missed him being winched up because we had to attend another shout.

Good news

We didn’t hear anything about the casualty until about a week later. We learned he fractured two vertebrae in his neck and one of the fractured vertebrae was millimetres from severing the spinal cord. The response of the emergency services that day and the first aid given had prevented any further damage.

When you hear that you’ve not only saved someone’s life, but also saved them from suffering a life-changing injury, there’s no feeling like it. We all felt super proud and so thankful for our casualty care training.

  • Wear a lifejacket and keep it fully maintained. If you do get swept into the sea, a lifejacket could save your life.
  • Be aware of rising sea swell levels and waves that could knock you off your feet.
  • Be wary of all edges around the sea and waterside – it’s not just cliff edges that are a risk.
  • Take extra care when walking by cliff edges and where it’s rocky, stoney or slippery underfoot.
  • Always take a means of calling for help. Remember in remote spots you may not get a mobile signal so a portable VHF radio may be more reliable.
  • Don’t fish alone. If an accident happens, someone else can call for help.
  • Always check the weather and tide times before heading to the coast.
For more safety tips, visit RNLI.org/angling