A second chance for Ben

After lifeboat crew saved a man’s life, he gives back in the best way he can.

Two people riding personal watercraft in Poole Harbour, Dorset, UK

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

An afternoon of fun on the Tay Estuary nearly ended in disaster after five friends riding personal watercraft (PWC) were beset by mechanical problems.

The first breakdown was due to a faulty earth strap. ‘We all stopped,’ says Ben Thomson. ‘I jumped into the water to hold the craft steady while driver Jamie took the seat off to investigate.’

They made an emergency repair but Jamie decided to head back to Broughty Ferry to fix it properly. ‘I was just turning round to follow him when there was a bang and mine cut out too,’ says Ben. ‘The engine had totally seized.’

Worse was to follow. Ben’s best friend Gavin was struggling to tow Ben’s PWC home in the rough conditions, and before long his overheated and cut out too. Another friend, Paul, took over the tow. Repeated attempts to restart Gavin’s engine drained the battery. With no hope of starting it, Ben and Gavin stayed put while the fifth member of the group, Robert, went off to get help.

Dragged into the ‘washing machine’

On his way back, Paul passed the Broughty Ferry lifeboat tasked to find his friends Ben and Gavin – who were still stuck out in the estuary. ‘He told them that we were at a place called the Barr,’ recalls Ben. ‘But we were actually being dragged towards Abertay Sands.’ Known locally as ‘the washing machine’, this is where the river estuary and the North Sea collide – a notorious area of strong currents and shallow water.

A map of the Tay Estuary

Photo: RNLI

‘The Barr was around 1½ miles further away,’ says Ben. ‘We could see the lifeboat going right past us, so obviously they couldn’t see us.’

As the light started to fade, Arbroath lifeboat and a Coastguard helicopter joined the search. ‘When I heard the helicopter coming over I thought we’d be OK,’ says Ben. But his hopes were soon dashed. ‘If you were to draw a line from where we were straight up into the sky, the helicopter went straight through that line without seeing us.

‘We’d been in the water for 1½–2 hours when the PWC began sinking. Each time we got hit by a wave it tumbled and took on water. When that happened, it dipped that little bit further into the water. That’s when we decided to swim. 

‘We took up the survival position. I lay on my back. Gavin lay between my legs held onto my legs – he kicked and I swam. Then to save energy we swapped over. But with the tide and the current, we just weren’t moving.’

‘Up to our necks in water’

The warm clothes Ben and Gavin were wearing – drysuits, and neoprene gloves and hats – were no barrier against the ice-cold water. They didn’t have a means of calling for help either. ‘Our phone was in the inside a pocket of one of the drysuits, We were up to our necks in water and we couldn’t reach it. Our flares were onboard. All we had on us was a whistle.’

‘When it started to get dark, we almost gave up hope,’ says Ben. ‘Hypothermia was setting in. We tried to kick our legs and swim, but it wasn’t happening. We didn’t have the strength or the power.

‘That’s when we looked at each other and thought this might be our time. We talked about how we’d deal with it. Do we just go under? Take a deep breath? Or do we lie back and just fall asleep?

‘While we were having that conversation, Gavin noticed a spotlight. I said to him: “Gav, I know what you’re saying buddy, but there’s nothing there. “We’d dipped into a set of waves and couldn’t see over the top. But as we came back up Gavin saw the light again, and so did I!

‘Gavin had the whistle attached to his jacket and I yelled: “Pick it up and blow, and don’t stop blowing!” He had absolutely nothing left in him to blow, so I took the whistle and blew as hard as I could. And then the light turned on us.

‘I could hear a voice saying over a loud-hailer: “We can hear you but we can’t see you. We’re going to come towards you, just keep whistling!”’ Ben kept whistling, and eventually a great big orange boat appeared by their side.

Broughty Ferry’s Trent class all-weather lifeboat

Photo: Gilbert Hampton

Broughty Ferry’s Trent class all-weather lifeboat

‘When Gavin realised the lifeboat was there and he was safe, he sort of gave up. I turned around and he was under the water. So I grabbed hold of him. The guys on the lifeboat put a rope around the two of us and pulled us in.’

Life-changing moment

‘After I was rescued, my whole outlook on life changed. I joined the lifeboat crew to give my time back to these boys who gave their time up to come and save my life.’

As well being a lifeboat volunteer at Broughty Ferry, one of Scotland’s busiest lifeboat stations, Ben started a new career. He left the offshore industry behind to join the Fire Service. He continues to volunteer on the lifeboat on his days off. 

‘I’ve rescued several people on PWCs and powerboaters, but none quite as dramatic as ours. I always give them the spiel about making sure they’ve got the right equipment, a radio and flares. I don’t tell them about what happened to me. I just say we’ve seen it quite a lot in the past, and it’s always worth taking time to think about what extra measures they can put in place to stay safe.

‘My wife Victoria thinks I’m crazy’

‘My wife is totally behind what I do, though she thinks I’m crazy! There are times on a family day out when the pager goes off and I leave her and the children standing as I rush off to the lifeboat. If it wasn’t for those boys doing what I’m doing right now, I wouldn’t be here today.’

Saving lives at sea never stops, not even during a pandemic. ‘To keep the crew safe, we make sure we don’t have too many people in the lifeboat station at one time,’ says Ben. ‘The crew is picked for a shout and the rest of us go back home. If we’re picked, we’ve got masks and gloves on, and visors down.

‘I would love my oldest daughter to join the lifeboat crew. She’s 13 and has already said she quite fancies it. My oldest son? He just wants to play football.

‘As long as I’m fit and healthy and I’m able to go out on the lifeboat and do what I do, I’ll carry on. It’s something that’s part of my life now, and always will be.’

Portrait of Ben Thomson

Photo: chrisscottphotography.co.uk 

Ben Thomson, now a lifeboat volunteer at Broughty Ferry Lifeboat Station

Be a lifesaver like Ben

Once you’ve looked after your loved ones, please consider leaving a gift to the RNLI in your Will. So when the unexpected happens, as it did with Ben, the lifeboat can be there to save a life. 

Find out more about leaving a gift in your Will.