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The search for a missing kayaker

When a kayaker went missing off the coast of Dorset, one of the biggest search operations in RNLI history was launched to find him.

Relief Shannon class lifeboat off the coast of Yarmouth

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Saturday 6 October. A group of kayakers set off from Knoll Beach, Studland, in a race to Swanage Pier. But it soon became clear that one of them had gone missing along the route. 

What followed was one of the biggest search operations in RNLI history, involving crews from six different lifeboat stations. What’s it like to be involved in such a large search? How difficult is it to be part of an operation of this size? And what happens when you can’t physically search anymore? Four crew members talk about their experience.

Dave Turnbull, Swanage Lifeboat

Dave Turnbull is the full-time coxswain/mechanic at Swanage Lifeboat Station. He was on a Shannon class lifeboat, one of the first to launch in the rescue mission.

Swanage Lifeboat Coxswain David Turnbull

Photo: RNLI

Swanage Lifeboat Coxswain David Turnbull

‘It was my wedding anniversary, and my wife and I had just been out for lunch. We’d literally just arrived home when the pager went off. I remembered seeing some kayaks out in the bay and thinking: “Hmm, it didn’t seem quite right”.

‘When we started off, the conditions were not too bad. Quite quickly it turned pretty horrible. There was a strong wind that blew up to a gale at one point. I’d expected to find this guy quite quickly because we were told he was part of a race from Studland to Swanage and had somehow become separated from the rest of the pack.

 ‘I assumed that we’d find him in the northern end of Swanage bay somewhere, within 30 minutes to an hour or so and that would be that. After we’d finished our initial search, I realised it wasn’t quite unfolding as I thought it was going to.

Swanage’s Shannon class lifeboat during rough weather training

Andy Lyons

Swanage’s Shannon class lifeboat during rough weather training

‘It escalated later on, when the helicopters started coming out, after it became obvious that we hadn’t found him in those first few hours. When it starts to get dark, staring out over the side looking for something that, in those conditions, is probably no more than 100m away, is tough. After a few hours of doing that you start to lose your concentration and focus a bit, so if you can, you need to swap people out. With the speed of our boat these days, we can get back to the station quite quickly, swap crew and head back out again.

‘We did 5 hours on the first stint, then came back ashore to swap over with another crew. They went back out again and did a bit while Weymouth were out to the west.’ 

Suzie Jupp, Poole Lifeboat

Suzie Jupp has been crew at Poole lifeboat for 7 years. Both Poole’s B and D class inshore lifeboats joined the search – Suzie was on the B class.

‘It was a dull, windy, slightly damp day. I was just pottering about the house. When the pager went off, I remember at the time thinking: “Oh gosh, it’s quite windy, I wonder who’s out there and what that could be?”.

Poole Lifeboat Crew Member Suzie Jupp

Photo: RNLI/Blast! Films

Poole Lifeboat Crew Member Suzie Jupp

‘We knew we would be searching for a missing kayaker. More details came through when we were actually out afloat.

‘It wasn’t too rough to start with. It was a grey day, not a nice bright day. As we continued and were tasked to search further out, it certainly got rougher. And then you’ve got the challenges of being in waves and dips of waves, so it’s harder to see across a further area. There was a lot of spray and it did rain at times as well, so your visibility is reduced even more.

‘Searching for a kayaker in rough weather is never easy because they are so low in the water. Once we learned we were searching for an outrigger kayaker, I knew it was a bigger item we were looking for. But you begin to think: “Are we searching for somebody who’s still OK in the kayak, or has he fallen out of the kayak and parted from it?”.

‘Initially we were tasked to start searching within Studland bay. The D class did a shoreline search, right up close to the beach. We were a little bit further out, going across the bay backwards and forwards to see if we could spot anything. After that we were given a wider search area, going down along the coast from Old Harry Rocks. As we progressed through the hours, we were searching further out into the bay to cover a wider area. You have to concentrate quite hard, on looking and thinking about what you’re looking for. You’re also kind of bracing yourself for the rough waves, hanging onto the boat as well even though we were all seated. Concentration gets harder as time goes on and the conditions worsen.

‘I think because we knew that the kayaker had been taking part in a race, we knew that he was out there. You really are quite desperate to find that person and the kayak. It wasn’t someone standing on the cliffs thinking they thought they had seen someone in the water, we knew someone was definitely out there. As time goes on, you almost get a bit frustrated because you search such a big area and we hadn’t been successful finding that person. You’re hoping that they’ve got themselves ashore somewhere but not been able to contact someone to say they’re OK.’

Dave Riley, Poole Lifeboat

Dave Riley was at the helm of Poole’s D class lifeboat that day.

‘I was home playing with my two little girls who were 4 and 1 at the time. The usual giggles, tickles and silliness was taking place as they infectiously laughed. Then that beeping sound I’ve been used to for the last 23 years sounded. I quickly jumped up. My other half looked in from the kitchen, knowing I would be out the door in seconds and off I went.

Dave Riley inside Poole lifeboat's floating boathouse

‘I remember the journey down to the station that day. The traffic was busy and I thought I wouldn’t make the shout. Initially it was only the B class lifeboat that had been requested and I knew we had other crew on call.

‘As I arrived at the station, I saw the lifeboat had launched, so thankfully me getting caught in traffic hadn’t delayed it. However, as I stepped into the station, the launch authority informed me the Coastguard had now requested our second lifeboat, the D class, and I needed to select my crew and get underway. From this point, every decision you make as a helm could result in saving a life.

‘I opted to go with four crew, including myself. It could be a long time afloat, so this would allow the crew to rotate positions and maximise our search effectiveness. It wasn’t a bad day when we launched. A slight breeze, some sun between the breaks in the cloud. I’d seen the forecast was due to get worse. I was just hoping it wasn’t too soon.

‘We concentrated on a shoreline search of Studland round to Old Harry Rocks. I took the opportunity to drop a crew member off to search the rocky shoreline, in case the person had stopped for a rest and we couldn’t see them from the water. Having done many searches in the past, I was hoping for the news they’d come ashore safe and well somewhere else – but no news was coming through and the search continued.

‘As the hours passed, we completed our searches inshore. You just knew it was serious and the weather was deteriorating quickly.

‘So we began searching further offshore. The sea was getting rougher, forming white caps on the top of breaking waves – making it more difficult to see someone or something in the water. As a helm, a lot of responsibility is on your shoulders. Thoughts run through your mind, from crew selections to making sure your boat is searching effectively to give that person the best possible chance. Not forgetting your own crew welfare and getting everyone home safely.

‘As time went on, the weather was getting worse. Every wave was felt in our knees. The point came where we were just holding on to get through the next wave, saltwater stinging our eyes. At that point, I really had to consider the safety of my boat and crew. Then came the tough decision. Do we continue to persevere in the weather, risk hurting my crew or even capsizing, but knowing someone needs our help and it might be us that could find them? I just didn’t know. But after 5 hours spent kneeling down in a small boat, and the terrible conditions, I needed to get my crew back to safety themselves. Was it the right choice? I just don’t know, but it’s something that sticks in my mind to this day.

‘As we got back into the harbour entrance we stopped, took off our helmets and checked everyone was OK. The mood on the boat was low. Returning while other lifeboats were still out searching, it’s not in a crew member’s nature to give up.

‘We sat in the boathouse listening to the radio as darkness fell, the search was still on-going, and we were just hoping for good news. Later in the evening, all lifeboats were stood down. Nobody really said anything, but we knew at this point hopes were fading.’

Guy Willing, Bembridge Lifeboat

As well as the two nearest lifeboat stations, crews from Weymouth, Bembridge, Mudeford and Yarmouth were also tasked to join the search. Guy Willing is the full-time coxswain of Bembridge’s Tamar class lifeboat. He and his crew joined the search on Sunday. 

‘First we heard was when the Deputy Launching Authority (DLA) told us to head to Swanage. Soon as we launched, they gave us some bearings. You know then that there’s something big going down."

‘We were all thinking about casualty care. Someone’s been in the water all night and they’re going to be very unwell. I said to the crew over the intercom: “start thinking hypothermic”, we needed to be ready if we found someone. 

Bembridge’s Tamar class lifeboat launches for an exercise

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Bembridge’s Tamar class lifeboat launches for an exercise

'In my role, I need to think: “How are we going to do this? Where are we going to take him? Where’s the best place to take him ashore?” It’s not something I would chat to the crew about, as it will distract them. I’m an ex-soldier and we always had the rule of three. You as an ordinary soldier only need to know what your platoon and your battalion are doing. Above that, you lose interest. You don’t need to know what the whole army is doing, just what your group is doing.

‘That is someone’s relative out there, somewhere. If you’ve got someone on the beach, saying he’s definitely out there, then you move heaven and earth to find them.’

The search comes to an end

It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that the tragic news came in. A fixed-wing Coastguard plane spotted the kayaker’s body in the water, 22 nautical miles south of Tyneham, a village to the west of Swanage.

‘It’s incredibly sad,’ says Dave Turnbull. ‘There was a strange moment when somebody had spotted something red in the water down near St Alban’s Head. We’d completed our search and been ashore for 10 minutes when a call came in that something red had been spotted in the water. The man we were looking for was wearing a red buoyancy jacket, so we were immediately sent back down that way. The Coastguard helicopter got there before we did and saw that it was two spear fishermen. Not what we were looking for. We came back to the station again and everybody was fairly sombre and slightly confused. You look at the area we’ve searched, the tracks that we’ve done, the tracks the other lifeboats have done, the helicopters have done. You look at it and think: “Where the hell is he, then?”.’

‘It’s sadness that somebody has been found and passed away,’ says Suzie. ‘There was recognition for the family, that it gives them some closure. There’s nothing worse than never really knowing what happened. We still didn’t know how he had passed away or why he had detached from the group, or what had happened exactly. It’s desperately sad. Obviously, when the family say thank you and that they appreciate what we’ve done, it’s nice. It’s just sad that we couldn’t have a better outcome for them.’

‘Sunday afternoon, I got home and gave my children the biggest hug I could ever give them,’ says Dave Riley. ‘Not only for leaving them suddenly on Saturday morning, but realising just how precious life is.’ 

The kayaker

The kayaker’s name was Alistair Collier. On the Monday morning, his two sons, daughter and partner made their way down to Swanage Lifeboat Station. ‘I came down to Dorset on Sunday morning,’ says Rob Collier, Alistair’s youngest son. ‘I was walking the coast on Sunday. Even without having direct news from the teams, we knew the search was significant. I saw multiple boats, the helicopter flying over, and the Coastguard going up and down the coast. Seeing them out there, knowing there were more searches taking place, helped provide some solace for me.

‘We’re watersport enthusiasts in the family. We’re all extremely familiar with the RNLI as an organisation. But it’s also one of those things that are kind of invisible to you until you really need it. Speaking to Dave on Monday down at the station, you realise it’s such a human organisation. We wanted to show our appreciation and just be there and show some solidarity with the teams that had been out looking for Dad for as long as they did. 

‘When you visit Swanage Lifeboat Station, it’s an amazing facility. You think of it as a volunteer or charity organisation, but it’s all so professional. Because people are naturally humble, the crew themselves won’t be like: “I’m a volunteer” or “I give up my weekends to do this”. I’m glad I met them and have that image of the teams, to go with the image of them out on the coast. As a family, we’ve done a lot of fundraising over the last 18 months. It’s a good way of us just to recognise the RNLI and all the stuff that they did over the weekend. It’s something we’re really grateful for.’

The news of Alistair’s death was met with an outpouring of love and condolences from friends, family and those who knew him in the watersports community. Alistair’s family have set up a fundraising page to raise money in his memory for the RNLI.  So far, over £11,000 has been raised. A huge amount that will help save many lives in the future. If you would like to contribute, you can still visit their fundraising page to make a donation.

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.

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