A gut decision
Two girls are being swept out to sea in an inflatable dinghy. Rhyl lifeboat crew are struggling to find them. Things just aren’t adding up.
After working a night shift, Police Officer Vinny Jones hadn’t been up long when his RNLI pager went off just before noon. It was Friday 9 August 2019.
As Vinny and Crew Members Callum Robinson and Charlie Williams kitted up at the lifeboat station, it emerged how serious the situation was. Two teenage girls in an inflatable dinghy were fighting to get back to shore just off Talacre Beach, Flintshire.
Family members had attempted to swim out to rescue the girls but had returned to shore realising conditions were too dangerous.
Now the girls were being blown towards a busy shipping channel and were in danger of being run over.
The Coastguard helicopter from Caernarfon had been scrambled and two land-based Coastguard teams from Rhyl and Flint were making their way to the girls’ family, who were watching from the beach.
‘Knowing the casualties were heading for the shipping channel gave me grave concerns,’ recalls Vinny, who was helm of the D class lifeboat that day. ‘That and the fact it was overcast and fairly cold for the time of year. Conditions out at sea are very different to those on the beach and hypothermia can set in very quickly.'
‘A lot of the wind farm boats go in past Talacre down to Mostyn docks after servicing the wind farms off North Wales,’ explains Station Mechanic Callum. ‘And they come in at quite a fast speed.’
A confusing direction
The lifeboat crew sped towards Talacre, around 6 miles away. But en route, Holyhead Coastguard instructed them to turn around and head back towards Rhyl. The family on the beach said they’d seen the lifeboat go straight past the dinghy.
‘We thought it was a bit odd because at that point we hadn’t actually got to Talacre,’ says Callum. ‘We were still off Prestatyn, which is a good 2 miles away.’
Despite not seeing anything, the lifeboat crew did as the Coastguard instructed and began to track back towards Rhyl.
‘We called the RNLI lifeguards at Prestatyn Beach to see if they’d seen anything,’ says Callum. ‘They hadn’t. So we were getting a bit confused and wondering: “How have we gone past them?”’
With no sign of the girls and concerns growing over their safety, Rhyl’s all-weather lifeboat crew also launched to help with the search.
Trusting your instincts
‘Things weren’t adding up; it didn’t feel right,’ says Vinny. ‘I was confident we would have seen the casualties at sea or the family on the beach if they were between Rhyl and Prestatyn.
‘I decided to head back to the Talacre area, the initial position given, and start searching from there. The crew agreed and we set off. We reached Talacre just a few minutes later and spotted the dinghy at last.’
But the worry wasn’t over yet. Were the casualties still with the dinghy?
‘Some people have a habit of jumping out of small craft like a dinghy to try to swim ashore,’ explains Callum. ‘But it’s the worst thing you can do because then you have nothing to keep you afloat. So even though we’d spotted the dinghy, there was still the worry that when we reached it, it would be empty.’
Things weren’t adding up. It didn’t feel right.
‘We reached the dinghy in just over 2 minutes,’ Vinny continues. ‘We all breathed a big sigh of relief – thankfully, the girls were there. The southerly winds and ebbing tide had taken them out approximately half a mile from the shoreline.
‘They were younger than had been reported: around 6 and 15 years old. The older casualty was in the water, holding on to the dinghy, while the younger casualty in the dinghy appeared very scared and worried. They were both very cold, dressed only in swimwear, and visibly shivering.
‘Our training kicked in and the three of us got both casualties onboard the lifeboat and secure in under a minute. I feared they were suffering the onset of hypothermia. I was particularly concerned for the casualty who had been in the water for quite some time and was at risk of post-rescue collapse.
‘Given our location and knowing there were Coastguard teams and paramedics with the family on Talacre Beach nearby, I decided to get the casualties ashore where they’d get the best possible help and support needed.’
Before setting off, Callum and Charlie helped the girls into lifejackets, wrapped thermal orange blankets round them to keep the wind off and put hoods on their heads to help them retain their body heat.
En route to the beach, Rhyl’s all weather lifeboat and the Coastguard rescue helicopter arrived on scene and stood by in case they were needed. After transferring the girls into the care of awaiting paramedics and Coastguard teams, the Rhyl inshore lifeboat crew arrived back at the station about 1½ hours after launching and made the boat ready for the next emergency.
When the girls, who were cousins, weren’t making progress paddling back to shore, the older one had entered the water to try and swim with the dinghy. But she was helpless against the strength of the outgoing tide and offshore breeze. She’d tried to get back into the dinghy but couldn’t, so held on to it instead while treading water.
The girls’ family on the beach had mistaken a dark orange wind farm boat, which was in the shipping channel heading for the Port of Mostyn, for the lifeboat. Thinking the lifeboat had gone straight past the dinghy, the family had contacted the Coastguard who then told the lifeboat crew to turn around. It was a case of mistaken identity.
‘When lives are at risk, sometimes you have to trust your instincts and go with your gut,’ says Vinny. ‘It boosted my confidence knowing I’d made the correct decision in heading to the original location. Turning around cost us a good 10–15 minutes. But mistaking the wind farm boat for the lifeboat is an easy mistake to make. I’m just pleased all ended well. It was a great team effort by all involved and I was proud of our crew.’
Safety advice: inflatables
We urge you not to use inflatables, blow-up toys and airbeds in the sea. They’re designed for pools, not the sea where they can be easily swept out.
If you see someone else in trouble, dial 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.
For more advice, visit our beach safety pages.