Nine lives on the line in a flooding spring tide
Eight people and a dog are stranded on rocks, engulfed by the flooding spring tide. But the rocks are no longer visible, and a 5-year-old child is neck-deep in water in her father’s arms. With the tide still rising, can West Kirby lifeboat crew reach them in time?
It was lunchtime on Tuesday 22 September and three sets of walkers were enjoying the stunning 2-mile walk out to Wirral’s three uninhabited tidal islands – Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre.
They included Wendy and her spaniel called Ruby from Wirral, a couple from Liverpool, and a family of five on holiday from Brazil.
As head of consumer finance for an online electricals store, West Kirby Volunteer Crew Member Adie Gregan was working from home that day. He was halfway through a video conference when his pager went off just after 1.30pm, leaving his work colleagues with a view of his empty chair.
‘Initially we were told there were five people cut off by the tide between the islands – this number then rose to nine including a dog,’ recalls Adie. ‘It’s actually quite a common shout for us. The casualties usually make it to one of the islands before we get there. However, we were all concerned on this day because we had a big spring tide, which can easily catch people out with the speed and depth that it comes in at.’
Within 8 minutes of being paged, West Kirby had launched their D class inshore lifeboat Seahorse. Marine Surveyor Jamie Marston was at the helm with Crew Members Adie and Tom Clarke, who was back home on leave after serving in the Royal Navy.
As an experienced sailor and having served over 20 years as a lifeboat volunteer, Jamie knows the shallow waters around West Kirby like the back of his hand.
‘If you don’t know how to navigate between the islands, you can hit rocks,’ explains Jamie. ‘And having to go round all three islands instead can take an extra 10–15 minutes, depending on weather conditions. That was time we didn’t have. So I took the route that I knew would get us through and we were on scene within 5–8 minutes.’
As soon as all casualties were in view, the urgency of the situation suddenly became very apparent.
‘Instead of being stranded but safe on one of the islands,’ says Adie, ‘the eight casualties were strung out between the islands, standing on separate rocks to try and stay above the water.’
The lifeboat crew headed for the casualties who were in the deepest water and in the greatest danger – a 5-year-old girl and her parents.
‘The parents were chest-deep in water and their little one was up to her neck,’ says Jamie. ‘Her father was struggling to keep his footing on the slippery rocks while trying to keep his daughter’s head above the water.’
Seeing the desperation on the family’s faces, Jamie decided to put a crew member in the water.
‘I didn’t hesitate entering the water,’ says Adie. ‘I could see the parents of the little girl were struggling and she looked terrified. My main thought was to grab the little girl to help her father and get them all into the lifeboat.’
Adie continues: ‘Both parents were massively relieved and couldn’t stop thanking us. The little girl, who was called Louisa, held on so tight to me like a limpet and didn’t want to let go. Jamie did really well, reassuring her that she was safe and it was OK to let go and get into the boat.’
Watch the moment Louisa and her parents are rescued by West Kirby lifeboat crew:
Once the family of three were safely aboard, the lifeboat crew prepared to rescue the remaining five casualties. Two of them turned out to be members of the same family – Louisa’s grandmother and aunt. They were both knee-deep in water and stranded on rocks about 15m apart.
The aunt was very concerned about the welfare of her mother – Louisa’s grandmother. So Adie stayed with the aunt in the water while Jamie and Tom helped the grandmother safely aboard the lifeboat. They then picked up Wendy, her dog Ruby, and the couple, before collecting Adie and Louisa’s aunt.
Adie, who’s been on the crew for 17 years since moving from Australia, was responsible for providing casualty care.
‘They were very relieved, cold and wet,’ says Adie. ‘Most were quite subdued. I think the seriousness of the situation started to sink in once they were aboard. Two of the women from the family had suffered minor cuts and abrasions to their feet after removing their shoes and treading on barnacles on the rocks.’
Halfway back to the station, Tractor Driver/Helm Chris Gatenby and Launch Commander/Crew Member Joe Hughes-Jones came out to meet the lifeboat in the station’s all-terrain launching vehicle, a Hägglunds Bandvagn (BV) 206.
Having assessed all the casualties, it was apparent some were much colder than others. So Adie decided to transfer Louisa, her mother and grandmother, and Wendy with her dog Ruby, into the vehicle where it was much warmer and he could continue to assess them. Joe took Adie’s place in the lifeboat to help transfer the four remaining casualties ashore.
‘She thought we were the PAW Patrol from TV!’
‘We have chocolate bars and biscuits in the BV,’ explains Adie. ‘Louisa was very pleased by this! I think it helped her feel safe. She told her mum that when she saw the lifeboat coming, she knew it would be OK because she thought we were the PAW Patrol from TV!’
A team of shore crew volunteers back at the station were waiting for the arrival of the lifeboat and launching vehicle. They provided the casualties with hot drinks and towels, and a bowl of water for Ruby.
It was Wendy who made the original 999 call to the Coastguard. Out of the eight people cut off by the tide, she was the only one with a working mobile phone because it was the only one that didn’t get submerged. She stayed on the line with the Coastguard and did her best to keep the couple closest to her calm.
Following her ordeal, Wendy got in touch with the station to express her thanks for rescuing her and Ruby. ‘We’re so grateful to every single person involved,’ she says. ‘I went out to the islands to banish some childhood memories of slipping on the rocks. The same rocks that helped to keep us all above the water. I was shocked at the speed and depth of the water surrounding us. I didn’t come away with quite the new memories I wanted, but I will never forget all the lifeboat volunteers who helped us that day. I don’t know what we would’ve done without them.’
‘We were their only hope for getting home safely,’ says Adie. ‘I can imagine it was quite a moment for them. I hate to think what might have happened if Wendy’s phone had failed as well.’
I will never forget all the lifeboat volunteers who helped us that day. I don’t know what we would’ve done without them.
Proud to help
Adie continues: ‘When you think about everything that goes on behind the scenes to make rescues like this possible – the people who raise the money for our kit and equipment, the support staff who make sure we get it, the engineers and mechanics who maintain the equipment, the trainers who provide us with world-class training, the shore crew who get us in and out of the water, to name but a few. Without any of these volunteers and staff, we wouldn’t have been there that day to pull these people out of the water. And that is quite a humbling thought for me.’
Jamie adds: ‘When it’s a shout where you know you have prevented something serious from happening, you can’t be anything but proud of your ability to go and help. I’m immensely proud of the team effort that goes into every launch here at West Kirby, from the shore and BV crew to the lifeboat crew. We’re a pretty tight unit. But of course, none of it happens without the support of our local community, family and friends, and supporters like you, who we’re incredibly proud of and grateful for too.’
When it’s a shout where you know you have prevented something serious from happening, you can’t be anything but proud of your ability to go and help.
How to avoid being cut off by the tide
‘When the tide comes in at West Kirby, it’s in for 4 hours or so before you can even attempt to walk back from the islands,’ says Jamie. ‘It’s a long time to wait. Instantly, people think the right thing to do is to try and make their way back to the mainland, but it’s the greatest risk they could ever take.’
- Before you head out, make sure it’s safe. Check forecasts and tides at RNLI lifeguarded beaches. Or find tide tables and surf reports for the UK and Ireland at magicseaweed.com, or other apps and local websites. You can also get tidal information locally from the Harbour Master, tourist information centre and some seaside retail outlets.
- Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back.
- Check for warning notices. Many areas prone to getting cut off by the tide have notices to advise safe access times.
- While you’re out, be aware of your surroundings and the tide’s direction.
- Always take a means of calling for help. A waterproof pouch for your mobile phone is a good idea too.