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Stuck on a rock: A tricky rescue for Ilfracombe RNLI

Father and son crew members rescue two anglers in a desperate situation.

Ilfracombe lifeboat crew member Ben Bengey on the rocks with the casualties

Photo: Surfing Devon @surfingdevon

Ilfracombe lifeboat crew member Ben Bengey on the rocks with the casualties

Wednesday 25 June. 8.15pm. Coxswain Andrew Bengey was at home watching television with his son, Ben, when the pager went off. 

Andrew is coxswain at Ilfracombe, Devon, and has been a volunteer for 42 years. As well as his home station, Andrew has also been a relief coxswain at other stations with a Shannon class lifeboat. ‘The RNLI put out a shout for anyone interested in helping out at other stations, so I put my hand up,’ says Andrew. ‘You’re serving with other volunteers, coming along to help out while their coxswain is off on holiday or unavailable.’

A passerby had called the coastguard after spotting two anglers in distress at Grunta Beach, just north of Woolacombe. The Coastguard paged Ilfracombe RNLI to come to their rescue. ‘All we knew was that there were two guys stuck on rocks with waves breaking over them,’ says Andrew. ‘It puts a sense of urgency in the shout. First five through the door at the station, get dressed because you’re going. So that included my son, who is also on the crew. I told Ben to put on his drysuit, as my first thought was that I was going to need to put someone ashore.’

Ilfracombe’s Shannon class lifeboat The Barry and Peggy High Foundation was the first to launch, with the station’s D class lifeboat Deborah Brown II launching shortly after. Both lifeboats powered to the scene. The calm sea and fair wind meant the faster Shannon class lifeboat was on scene in 10 minutes. ‘Because of the conditions, the Shannon was always going to get there first. We were to get there and calm the situation down and, if I could, get someone ashore.’

They found the two casualties cut off by the tide and stranded on a set of rocks. ‘As we came round the bay, you could see the two people. It looked like they were in the middle of the sea.’

It wouldn’t take long for the rock to be completely submerged, leaving both casualties at the mercy of the waves and the 1.5 metre swell. But the conditions meant the lifeboat wouldn’t be able to get in close. So Andrew’s inkling proved to be correct – a crew member was going to have to enter the water.

Ilfracombe’s Shannon class lifeboat The Barry and Peggy High Foundation

Photo: RNLI/Steve Lowe

Ilfracombe’s Shannon class lifeboat The Barry and Peggy High Foundation

Jumping in

‘I asked my son: “Are you alright going in there?”, because there was quite a swell. And he said he was, so we entered the bay and I dropped him off behind the rocks that they were stood on. The casualties couldn’t go into the water and swim, because the sea was going across the bay and smashing into the cliffs behind them. If they had tried to swim for the steps behind them, they would have been badly beaten up.’

Ben swam his way to the rocks, navigating the surf as he went. ‘First words he said to them was: “Hello, I’m your rescue swimmer today”,’ says Andrew. ‘Just to try and lighten their mood. It’s something we all try and do. Say something to make them smile, to take their mind off what’s happening.’

Ben swam to the casualties with two lifejackets which he then put on them. 

With his son now on the rocks, Andrew backed the lifeboat back out of the bay so they could safely monitor the situation. ‘We could see the inshore lifeboat approaching. We knew it was 2-3 minutes until they got there, so we just waited.’

With the D class on scene, it was time to extract the casualties. The skill of the D class helm Stuart Carpenter meant a tricky manoeuvre was safely executed. ‘The helm was able to look at the swell coming in, and time it just right so he could get in behind the rock, and put the bow of the lifeboat onto the rocks so they could all jump onboard and get away.’

With the casualties off the rocks, the D class made its way to the Shannon, where they were transferred across. ‘We checked them over, made sure they were all alright. All while trying to manage social distancing. So we went through the casualty care cards from a distance, and if there was anything that they could do themselves, like adjust their lifejackets, we would ask them to do that. We then took them back to Ilfracombe and handed them over to the care of the Coastguard.

‘They were tourists who had come down for the day. They had surfed in the morning before fishing in the evening. They were catching quite a few fish but didn’t see the tide coming round them. It was a very serious situation, especially if no one had seen them. This was during lockdown, so only one 999 call had been made. 

‘If nobody else had seen them, 5-10 minutes after we arrived, they would have been washed off that rock and pounded against the cliff behind them. They had made the right choice to stay on the rock and not try to swim for it. It was a very serious situation they had been in, and they could have lost their lives.’

Ilfracombe Lifeboat Coxswain Andrew Bengey

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Ilfracombe Lifeboat Coxswain Andrew Bengey

Father’s pride

‘It’s always difficult putting your son at risk,’ says Andrew. ‘He’s a strong swimmer, he’s young, and he knows the water as a fisherman. He knows to sit and wait for a set of waves to come in before trying to climb on the rocks. It’s something he’s done before on a previous rescue. He’s quite at home sat in the water helping people. It doesn’t faze him. There are different skills with different people on the lifeboat crew. It’s about picking the right people at the time.

‘I’m very proud. I never knew he was going to follow me onto the lifeboat. It was his own decision, I never pushed him in that way. It was about a month before he turned 17 that he said: “I think I’ll join now.” He’s gone on to become an inshore lifeboat helm and he’s just started his coxswain plan, so in the next few years he’ll be able to take charge of the Shannon.

Andrew and Ben aren’t the only family members here at the RNLI. We’re made up of a family of kind people, like you, who give the crews everything they need to answer the call for help.