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Mayday alert for capsized kayakers

A group of kayakers are being buffeted by force 6 winds and 3m swells. With three already in the water, lives are in jeopardy and they desperately need help.

A capsized kayak in the water

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

‘We were making our way out of Broadsands Bay when we spotted several kayakers in distress just off Egg Rock,’ recalls 19-year-old Sophie Braund, a deckhand with Ilfracombe Sea Safari and a probationary crew member at RNLI Ilfracombe. 

‘Within seconds we heard the Mayday call on the radio and knew we had to help rather than wait for the Coastguard’s response.’ 

Sophie was onboard the sea safari vessel Lundy Explorer, a 10m rigid inflatable boat, which was full of passengers. As Skipper Alex Welch made his way towards the kayakers in Combe Martin Bay, Sophie phoned Ilfracombe’s Duty Coxswain Andrew Bengey and asked him to launch the all-weather lifeboat. 

Andrew was watching rugby in the pub with some of his fellow lifeboat volunteers when he received Sophie’s call. With one more quick call to Ilfracombe’s Duty Deputy Launching Authority Ian Meadlarkin, the launch was on. 

Both Ilfracombe lifeboats respond to the mayday

Photo: RNLI/Paula Kingdon

Both Ilfracombe lifeboats respond to the mayday

A raging sea 

The Mayday call was made by the leader of a kayaking group. From a distance, the leader had also spotted kayakers in trouble.

Another group of eight kayakers had tried to help the two kayakers who were initially in trouble, but in doing so, had got into difficulties themselves. 

Now 10 kayakers were at the mercy of the raging sea. Although it had been a gloriously sunny day, conditions out at sea had begun to deteriorate that afternoon. A north-westerly 25–30mph wind was driving steep 3m waves in what was already a high spring tide. This all made conditions out in the bay extremely rough. 

‘It was quite difficult to spot all the kayakers in the 3m swell and breaking waves,’ explains Sophie. ‘We had to look in between the sets of waves.’ 

Ilfracombe lifeboat rescues capsized kayakers

Photo: RNLI/Paula Kingdon

One of the kayakers in peril is taken aboard

Alex and Sophie headed straight towards two people in the water who were desperately clinging on to a kayak. They were the two people who had got into trouble in the first place. 

‘‘They were very cold and distressed and very relieved to see us,' says Sophie. 'I pulled them aboard while Alex held the boat safely in position. 

‘I was really concerned as they’d been in the water, which was only 11̊C, for over 30 minutes without wetsuits, and had swallowed a lot of water. We needed to get them somewhere warm as quickly as possible. 

‘There were lots of other kayakers also in distress, so Alex and I were keeping an eye on them at the same time, making sure those in the water were sticking with their kayaks and not letting go.’ 

Alex reassured them that help was on its way and told them to try to stay calm. He encouraged those on kayaks to keep paddling to shore through the rough sea. 

Early help comes from the crew of Ilfracombe Sea Safari RIB

Photo: Ilfracombe Sea Safari

Early help comes from the crew of Ilfracombe Sea Safari RIB

The lifeboats arrive 

It took just 5 minutes for Ilfracombe’s all-weather lifeboat crew to arrive on scene after launching quickly. 

‘We headed straight for a person who was in the water, hanging onto the back of another paddler’s kayak,’ says Ilfracombe Coxswain Andrew Bengey. ‘The casualty was frightened and very cold and confused – hypothermia had set in.’ 

The crew had to act fast. Andrew decided a crew member would have to enter the water to help the casualty onboard the lifeboat – a decision not made lightly, especially in the rough conditions. Anticipating a scenario like this, Andrew had already asked one of the crew to put on a drysuit upon launching. 

Andrew’s son, Ben, didn’t hesitate. He swam out and guided the casualty towards the Shannon class lifeboat’s A-frame hoist. Once safely strapped in, the casualty was winched aboard the lifeboat. 

As soon as the crew had recovered Crew Member Ben from the heaving water, they went to the aid of another person who was lying on a kayak being buffeted by the large waves. Andrew positioned the lifeboat as close as he could alongside the kayaker and Ben entered the water again, pulling the kayak closer to the lifeboat so that the crew could lift first the kayaker then the kayak aboard. 

Both casualties were taken down into the wheelhouse to warm up and be assessed. At just 31̊C, their core body temperature was dangerously low, but it was crucial to rewarm them slowly. Any sudden change in body temperature could cause their body to go into shock and prove fatal. The crew helped the casualties replace their wet clothes with dry undersuits, wrapped them in blankets, gave them a warm drink to sip and continuously monitored their condition. 

Meanwhile Deborah Brown II, Ilfracombe’s D class inshore lifeboat, had arrived on scene. The crew went straight to the assistance of another kayaker struggling in the waves and strong current. The crew got them and their kayak onboard. They took the kayaker to the safety of Combe Martin Beach, then went back into the bay to make sure the remaining five kayakers made it safely back to shore. 

By this time, the Lundy Explorer was in the safe shelter of Watermouth Harbour, where the waters were calmer. Alex and Sophie were waiting to transfer the two casualties onto the all-weather lifeboat. 

‘I was concerned for the two kayakers we’d rescued but I was also concerned for our passengers,’ says Sophie. ‘Some of them hadn’t been on a boat before and the sea was quite big where the kayakers were. They didn’t expect to be out at sea in those conditions so weren’t dressed appropriately and were getting cold themselves.’ 

The Shannon class relief lifeboat, Storm Rider

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

The Shannon class relief lifeboat, Storm Rider

‘A team effort’ 

Once the situation was under control and it was clear all the kayakers were safe and accounted for, the two casualties aboard the Lundy Explorer were transferred across to Ilfracombe’s all-weather Shannon class relief lifeboat, appropriately named Storm Rider. Alex and Sophie were pleased to get their passengers safely back to shore. 

Both lifeboats returned to the station at 6pm where all casualties were taken into the care of the awaiting paramedics and treated for hypothermia. Thankfully, they were all given the OK and were able to return home a short while later. 

'It was so cold, and the water was crazy,’ one of them said. ‘I just want to say a huge thank you to the RNLI. It’s amazing that these guys are all volunteers.’ 

‘And a huge thank you to you, our supporters,’ says Andrew. ‘Without your support, this story would have had a tragic ending for sure. So, it really was a team effort.’

Andrew Bengey, RNLI Coxswain at Ilfracombe

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

‘Buoyancy aids certainly helped keep people alive that day’

Coxswain Andrew says: ‘Sophie and Alex did a cracking job in the conditions with passengers onboard. Sophie’s call to me as soon as the Mayday went out saved at least 10 minutes and I believe this swift action saved at least two lives. Both lifeboat crews did extremely well too. 

‘Buoyancy aids certainly helped keep people alive that day. As did staying with their kayaks, which not only helped people to float but made it easier for us to spot them too. 

‘And they were very lucky a kayaker nearby had a radio to call for help in the first place. We recommend people always carry a means of calling for help, such as a VHF radio or a mobile phone in a waterproof bag, and keep it on them, within reach, at all times.’

Sophie Braund, Probationary Crew Member

Photo: RNLI/Paula Kingdon

‘Always check the sea conditions and weather forecast, particularly the wind’

Sophie Braund, Probationary Crew Member at Ilfraccombe, says: ‘Man overboard training definitely came into play on this shout. I knew exactly how to get people back in the boat safely and how to assess them once they were in the boat. 

‘I didn’t think about it at the time but afterwards, it felt really good knowing that I had potentially saved two people’s lives. 

‘The sea can be unpredictable, as it was on this day. But when planning to go kayaking, always check the sea conditions and weather forecast, particularly the wind. Also, wear appropriate clothing, like wetsuits, and make sure any safety kit is fitted correctly. When I pulled in the two kayakers, their buoyancy aids were very loose which made it more difficult to pull them into the boat.’

For more advice on how to kayak safely, take a look at our kayaking tips.