Seconds away from drowning
A routine rescue turns into a race against time for the lifesavers at Weston-super-Mare. Can they rescue the casualties before the sea takes them?
Sunday 24 May 2020. With the UK in lockdown, Weston-super-Mare Helm Liam McDermott was spending the Bank Holiday weekend at home. ‘I was in my back garden trying to teach my 2-year-old daughter how to play catch. It was a lovely day.’
The pager went off at 4.50pm. Liam was joined at the lifeboat station by David Ridout and Paul Sargent. Between them, they have over 35 years’ experience, but today was going to be a shout like no other.
The first shout
‘We were initially told that there were a few guys in difficulty off our low-water launch route,’ says David. ‘As we made our way down there, we saw that one group was making it safely back. But the coastguards at the scene spotted two guys across the bay, and asked us to head over to make sure they were okay.‘
The lifeboat crew arrived to find the pair in a sticky situation. They’d walked out over the mud flats. Paul says: ‘One of them had his leg stuck in the mud and had injured himself trying to get free.’
‘He was in a great deal of pain, so we got them aboard and requested an ambulance,’ recalls David. ‘But then we heard the comms come alive.’
The radio chatter brought concerning news: two people in the water at Birnbeck Island, a notorious stretch of water nearby.
‘You get a sense when you’re talking to the coastguard on the radio, the concern that comes over in their voice,’ says David. ‘We could tell this was serious.’
The lifeboat isn’t supposed to head to another shout in the middle of the previous one. Even if lives are on the line. ‘Normally as soon as you’ve got somebody onboard the lifeboat, that lifeboat is unavailable for any further rescues,’ says Liam. ‘You’d be demanding the coastguard call in a flank station. But we knew we didn’t have time for that and we had to go.
‘I vividly remember speaking to the guy who was injured, who was sat at the bow of the D class, and saying to him we have to go and get these people and we haven’t got time to take you back. Are you okay with that? Thankfully, despite the pain, he was.’
Locating one person in the water is difficult, never mind two. But the lifeboat crew had help from a coastguard on the island with eyes on the casualties, as David explains: ‘In the D class, with the sun low, vision can be quite limited. Having the coastguard there who could see them and direct us where we need to go was vital.’
‘Without the coastguard conning us on,’ says Liam, ‘I don’t think I would have spotted them.’
People in the water
The day had started well for Veronika and her boyfriend Rory, as they enjoyed a day at the beach. ‘We had a day off, so we thought we’d go to the beach,’ says Veronika. ‘In the distance we saw the abandoned pier with all the ruins and we thought it would be nice to go and see it up close. It was difficult to get there because the mud was sticky and sometimes it got a little bit deeper, but we really didn’t have any thoughts of getting into trouble. But, when we wanted to go back, we realised that the water was covering the path we came on and was getting closer to the beach. It didn’t look that deep, it was probably knee-high, so we thought we could still get across and wouldn’t have to bother anyone to help us.
‘The waves came and swept us into the open sea. That was the moment when I realised that we were in big trouble. There were waves coming from behind me and taking me under. Every minute there was a wave over my head, taking me underwater, choking and drowning. Rory was further out and I could feel that I couldn’t swim much longer, so I was just floating on my back.
‘And there was this moment when I just couldn’t swim anymore and I could feel I was giving up. I knew there would be another wave coming over my head and taking me under the water and I would stay there because I didn’t have any more strength. I’ve never been so close to death in my whole life. Rory was shouting, I could hear him, I couldn’t believe there was anyone coming for us. I could see his face; he was really worried. And then the lifeboat showed up and I was like, “What is this miracle?”.’
Just in time
‘You could hear they were in massive amounts of trouble,’ says Paul. ‘They were screaming and the female casualty kept disappearing beneath the water. So you knew at that point it was a race against time as to whether or not we were going to get to them before they disappeared forever.’
The crew quickly approached and grabbed hold of Veronika. Rory, clearly exhausted, managed to cling onto the side of the lifeboat as the crew pulled Veronika onboard. With his girlfriend now safe, the crew moved on to Rory. ‘That was 100% training,’ says Liam. ‘Every time we go out on the water, we practise bringing casualties onboard. We had drilled that manoeuvre. Training took over.’
Once Veronika and Rory were out of the water and into the increasingly crowded lifeboat, casualty care started to take place. ‘We were assessing, making sure the casualties were okay,’ says David. ‘Making sure there weren’t any more injuries other than the cold.’
And then the radio went off again. There was one more person in the water.
There’s one more
David was on the radio that day. ‘There’s so much noise and confusion going on in the boat. So it was hard to take in that there was a third person in the water.’
The crew quickly began scanning, searching for the third casualty. David spotted the man. Liam, at the helm, recalls: ‘I couldn’t see, so I had to trust David. Just goes to show it was a team effort.’
The third person in the water was a good Samaritan who had seen Rory and Veronika in distress and tried to help, only to find himself caught out. Having found the casualty, the crew prepared to haul him onboard. But, finding some reserve of energy from somewhere, the casualty pulled himself onto the lifeboat before collapsing. ‘Once he was onboard he did start to deteriorate from the exhaustion,’ says Paul. ‘He had used the last of his energy and willpower to get on the lifeboat.’
With 8 people onboard the lifeboat – 5 casualties plus the lifeboat crew – it was a bit crowded on the passage back to the lifeboat station. ‘We were chatting with the casualties constantly, to make sure they were okay,’ says Paul.
‘These people had been in the water for quite a period of time,’ says David. ‘There’s a risk of hypothermia and secondary drowning, so I called in the ambulances.’
They arrived back to the station to find ambulances, coastguard response teams and other Weston volunteers waiting to meet them. What had started as a single shout had turned into a major incident. Paul recalls: ‘All of the casualties were very happy to get off the boat and know they were completely out of harm’s way.’
After handing over the casualties for further medical care, the crew had time to reflect on a rescue unlike any they’ve experienced before.
‘When you see how close these people were to drowning,’ says Liam, ‘you kind of appreciate just how much luck was on their side. If we had been called out from home, we probably wouldn’t have been there in time.’
‘This is the first shout I’ve had that has come this close to someone potentially not coming back,’ says David. ‘The couple had already said goodbye to each other. They thought they had gone. It was a remarkable day and one I won’t forget. You think “Wow, we made a difference that day.” This is why the RNLI is where it is. People need us.’
Notorious: Birnbeck Island
The area where the three casualties were rescued is notorious for its currents. Helm Liam explains: ‘The tide comes in over a 6-hour period and 50% of the water moves within 2 hours. In Weston, there’s 12m of water at high tide, so you have 6m of water moving within 2 hours, and end up with 6 knots worth of tide. To put 6 knots in perspective, that means within 10 minutes you’ve moved 1 mile.
‘I’ve been on call outs to that area where we’ve lost people. I remember one job in particular where, as we arrived at the station, we could hear the people shouting for help. By the time we got there they had drowned. So not only is it a dangerous area, it’s a dangerous area with a track record. In my time 3 people have drowned there just because of the tide.’
Rescues like this are only possible thanks to your support. Without your kindness, the crew at Weston-super-Mare would not have been there for these 5 people when they were needed most. Lifesavers like them are ready to launch to the rescue. Will you support them?