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One mayday, two woolly bears and a chatterbox save the day

You never thought this would happen to you. Your dinghy’s capsized and you’re in the sea. The water feels freezing. 

The view from the dark green sea, with land in the far distance

Photo: Shutterstock

Far from land, your boat’s capsized and you’re chilled to the bone 

Imagine you’re in the water, clinging onto your boat, but it’s unstable and in danger of sinking. The capsize happened so quickly – a real shock. You realise you’re in trouble and call mayday on your VHF radio. Help should be coming soon, but you’re cold, very cold. 

Easter weekend interrupted by the sound of a pager

Porthdinllaen Lifeboat Crew Member Caryl Jones was on her way home from Caernarfon, on Saturday afternoon, 16 April. The spring sun was shy behind the clouds and the sea temperature hadn’t reached 10°C. Caryl’s an Early Years Development Officer, but she had a long weekend off for Easter. She was with her boyfriend, planning to spend the afternoon walking the coastal path with a chance of spotting some seals. 

It’s a habit for Caryl to look out to sea on the route home, to assess the likelihood of a call out. It was quiet, with only one boat out. ‘Not much chance of a shout this afternoon,’ she concluded. Back home, just as she was sitting down for a cup of tea, the pager sounded. She turned to her boyfriend and said: ‘I’ve got to go!’

Volunteer Lifeboat Crew Member Caryl Jones in crew kit, smiling in front of the Porthdinllaen Lifeboat Station, with the shiny Tamar lifeboat in the background

Photo: Shutterstock

‘I’ve got to go!’ says Caryl, answering a mayday call on Easter weekend

‘Mayday calls still feel quite scary’

All the crew at Porthdinllaen jumped to it. Adrenaline kicked in when they heard that it was a mayday call and that two people – a father and grown-up daughter – were in the water. Caryl’s been on the crew for 10 years and says: ‘Mayday calls still feel quite scary. You have to keep your mind straight, make sure you get there in time and everything’s prepared.‘

The pair on the dinghy have done all they can to give themselves a fighting chance of survival. They were wearing the proper sailing gear, with lifejackets on, and they have a VHF radio. They called for help early too, and stayed with the boat to increase their chances of being spotted. 

Porthdinllaen Tamar class lifeboat John D Spicer heading towards you through the waves

Photo: Nicholas Leach

The casualties told the crew about the ‘massive relief’ they felt when they saw the lifeboat coming for them

Launch the lifeboat!

Coxswain Owain Williams was at the helm of the Tamar class lifeboat John D Spicer. Caryl was among five other crew members. She took the navigator’s seat. It was a quick launch, around 10 minutes after being paged.

The crew on the lifeboat knew the location of the dinghy from when the mayday call was made: about 4 miles from the station, near Carreg y Llam, and luckily it hadn’t drifted far. With the RNLI binoculars, the crew spotted the dinghy, half-submerged and at an angle. But the volunteers couldn’t see the two sailors, and they were worried – there had been no communication with the pair since the mayday call.

In the distance, father and daughter catch sight of the lifeboat heading their way. On previous trips they’ve seen the Porthdinllaen lifeboat out and about. But this time the lifeboat was coming to them. Can you imagine the relief they felt when they saw the lifeboat?

Four minutes after launching, the speedy 25-knot Tamar lifeboat arrived. The crew were relieved to see two people there with their dinghy – alive and responsive. 

‘We’re there to save lives’

Caryl describes the scene: ‘The boat was underwater. The daughter was holding on towards the front and the father was in the boat trying to keep it stable. They’d been in the water for 20 minutes. The wind was blowing about force 3 or 4, and it was picking up. The father thought if he let go the boat would capsize and sink because it was full of water. But we’re there to save lives.’ 

The crew passed the throw bag over to the daughter first, helped her towards the side of the lifeboat and used the winch to get her safely aboard. 

The crew lined up on the deck of the Tamar class lifeboat, ready to pull in the casualties from the water

Photo: RNLI/Dylan Thomas

Real-life rescue shot of the Porthdinllaen crew in action, about to pull the casualties aboard, one-by-one

‘She was absolutely freezing!’

Caryl was one of three casualty carers onboard, trained to a high level of first aid. Caryl took the daughter into the cabin, while others got the father aboard. ‘She was absolutely freezing!’ remembers Caryl. With both sailors in the cabin, the crew did a check for injuries. ‘Sometimes when you’re that cold,’ Caryl explains, ‘you can’t feel that you have an injury. Thankfully, they were clear.’ The sailors took off their wet clothes and the work started to warm them up slowly. ‘We improvised with a spare bit of crew kit called woolly bears – they’re like a onesie really, nice and cosy,’ says Caryl. And then they added blankets on top and turned on the heating in the cabin.

Throughout the rescue, Caryl and the crew kept in touch with Coxswain Owain Williams who was at the upper steering position out on deck. A passing boat kindly towed the dinghy to Nefyn Beach, and Owain tasked a couple of the crew to launch the small inflatable Y boat and accompany them. 

Heart-warming and lifesaving communication skills 

In the lifeboat cabin it was a tale of two temperatures. The toasty cabin was helping to warm up the cold sailors, while Caryl was sweltering in her lifeboat kit with layers and layers of walking gear underneath. ‘I was saying: “I’m not trying to make you jealous, but I’m absolutely boiling!” We had a few laughs.’ She kept them talking to make sure their health didn’t go downhill. Welsh is Caryl’s first language and she’s fluent in English too. ‘They were with the right person to keep chatting! After a while, you could see the colour getting back to their faces.’

Caryl’s not the only talkative one around. She says: ‘Our crew has good teamwork. We always keep talking during call outs and exercises and afterwards too, especially after the tough services. We come together quite a lot and keep well as a team.’

Safely ashore and the care continues …

It took 10-15 minutes to reach the lifeboat station. The care for the casualties didn’t stop there though. Caryl took the woman to have a warming shower. Another crew member made the sailors a cup of coffee and they all chatted some more. 

‘I think that it’s important to talk after something like that,’ asserts Caryl. ‘To let them know that we’re here to help, that accidents do happen and that they’d done the right thing.’ Owain then drove the pair to their relatives in Nefyn. Later, the sailors returned the woolly bears to the RNLI Shop and thanked everyone at the Porthdinllaen lifeboat for coming to the rescue. 

On the way home, Caryl popped into a shop to buy some milk. It took a while as the locals had heard about the call out and cornered her for a chinwag, checking she was OK. ‘We’re a chatty, close community here,’ says Caryl with a big smile.

One of the reasons those two sailors survived was because they did the right thing by wearing lifejackets. If you’re heading out to sea soon, check out the RNLI’s advice on lifejackets before you go.