Swept out to sea on an inflatable unicorn

A family trip to Palm Bay could have ended in disaster, if it wasn’t for the Float to Live advice that 12-year-old Evie received from the RNLI’s Face-to-Face Team.

Margate RNLI rescue twin sisters from an inflatable unicorn

Photo: RNLI/Nick Smith

It was a hot July day and the Taylor family had just put their bags down on the sand at their favourite holiday spot on the north Kent coast, Palm Bay Beach. 

Keen to try out their new inflatable unicorn, 12-year-old twins Evie and Lola headed straight for the sea, along with their dad, Ben. 

Evie and Lola enjoying the water in their inflatable unicorn

Their mum, Natalia, took a photo of the family playing in the water. She remembers: ‘There were no waves, it looked as calm as anything. The water was only up to Ben’s knees. I didn't see any dangers whatsoever. Then, all of a sudden, they were taken away.’

Swept along by the wind, the girls’ inflatable rapidly started heading out to sea. 

Ben recalls the terrifying moment he realised his daughters were in trouble: ‘I’d been standing right next to them in the water but when I turned around they were already about 20m away. I decided to swim out after them. I wasn’t waiting around – I don’t think any parent would.

‘I tried to keep my eye on them but all I could see was the unicorn’s neck. They were just dots. I could see boats here and there and shouted to them but nobody was stopping.’

‘Absolutely frantic’ 

Toby George, Helm at Margate RNLI, remembers the shout: ‘It was a very hot day with the wind whipping down across the bay and straight out to sea. 

‘I’m a carpenter and was at work when the pager sounded, so I jumped into the van and drove straight to the station.’

At the lifeboat station, Toby was joined by volunteer crew members Chris Andews and Dan Golding. Together they powered their D class inshore lifeboat towards Palm Bay. 

Margate’s D class lifeboat powers to the rescue

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Ramsgate RNLI and the UK Coastguard were also called to join the search. 

Toby remembers: ‘It was a bit of a strange situation because when we reached the girls’ last known position there was no sign of anybody. 

‘Then we spotted someone swimming, so we shot towards them. It was actually the dad, so we picked him up. He’d swum about three-quarters of a mile out to sea looking for his daughters and still didn't know where they were. As you can imagine he was absolutely frantic.’

Meanwhile, RNLI Lifeguard Josh Jones was paddling out from nearby Botany Bay. ‘It was scary,’ remembers Josh. ‘When I started paddling, they were so far away. I was starting to get tired and all I could hear was the girls screaming.’

Float to Live

Meanwhile, Evie and Lola had managed to stay together, holding on tightly to their inflatable. They knew they were in danger as they drifted further out to sea, so they decided to try to grab hold of a nearby stationary buoy. 

Natalia explains what happened: ‘The girls jumped off the unicorn but they missed the buoy and the inflatable sped off without them.’

Now submerged in the cold water, the girls were swimming with nothing to hold onto. 

That’s when Evie remembered the Float to Live advice she’d been given the previous day, when she’d met an RNLI face-to-face fundraiser in Margate. 

She showed her sister how to float safely on her back, and they alternated swimming and floating, staying calm until help arrived. 

Back on the lifeboat, Ben and the crew heard that someone had been pulled from the sea by a passing pleasure boat. They sped over to the boat, where they found Evie and Lola wrapped up in towels, smiling and waving, with Josh also at their side.

Toby says: ‘As you can imagine, Ben was elated, so he jumped onboard the other vessel, while we stayed by and held tight. Then we got all of them onto the lifeboat and went to Botany Bay where the lifeguards took over the casualty care.’

The girls are brought ashore by the lifeboat crew
The girls are brought ashore by the lifeboat crew

A powerful force

With their family safely reunited, Natalia and Ben are clear: ‘The Float to Live advice saved the girls’ lives. 

‘You don’t realise that the sea is such a powerful force until something like this happens to you. 

‘The whole experience just made me appreciate my girls even more. And stuff that I didn't even know existed: what the RNLI does, the people involved and what they sacrifice for people they don't know. It gives me faith in the world.’

How to stay safe on an inflatable

RNLI Community Safety Partner, Guy Addington, says: ‘The two girls did very well to remember our safety information and to keep together. We advise people not to use inflatables in the sea, as they are really designed for swimming pools. Due to their light-weight nature, they can easily be swept out to sea, as happened in this case.

‘We are pleased that the girls remembered our Float to Live advice, but we only advise getting out of the inflatable if you are still close to the shore and a strong swimmer. If not, we advise people to stay with the inflatable as it will keep you above water and makes you more visible.’

Margate RNLI rescue twin sisters from an inflatable unicorn

Photo: RNLI/Nick Smith

The Face-to-Face Team

Jack Hood, Face-to-Face Manager, says: ‘The RNLI Face-to-Face Team shares safety messages to reduce drowning through the power of the spoken word. It's working and it’s saving lives. As a manager, I couldn't be prouder of my team's achievements.

‘In south-east England this year, we delivered 21,186 Respect the Water messages – 2,333 of which were in Margate. As we might be the first RNLI representatives you meet on the beach, we’re pivotal in educating beachgoers and water-users in how to stay safe.’

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