Hayling Island: Free-falling off the waves

Volunteers at Hayling Island have received awards for courage after saving three men trapped on a yacht in severe weather. Here's what happened:

Hayling Island Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat Derek Battle being launched on a training exercise

Photo: Stephen Duncombe 

Hayling Island Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat Derek Battle being launched on a training exercise

In churning waves the yacht was hauled skywards yet again, mounting a foaming crest before being dropped violently into a trough, its bilge keels hitting the seabed with such force it sent shock waves shuddering through the stricken vessel.

On its bow, 24-year-old Lloyd Pepperell, one of the youngest volunteers at Hayling Island Lifeboat Station, lay flat on his belly, clinging onto the rail and wondering how long the craft could survive this punishment before its back broke.

While the yacht pitched and rolled uncontrollably, all his attention was focused on trying to secure a tow rope to the anchor cleat. Each time the boat fell off a wave, Lloyd found himself free-falling in the cold air, before being smacked back down onto the deck.

Behind him in the cockpit sat three soaked, shivering and terrified men, appalled by the strengthening winds and 2m waves crashing over them and threatening to tear their vessel apart.

Just a decade before, Lloyd had himself been rescued by Hayling Island RNLI. Now their lives lay in his – and the rest of the crews’ – hands.

The Atlantic 85 takes up the tow
The Atlantic 85 takes up the tow

'I've never experienced conditions that big on a D class'

The date was 28 June 2020. Despite being early summer, the weather was as severe as any of the Hayling Island volunteers had seen. This was the second time that day they had been called out to the 7.5m yacht.

That morning it had run aground in notorious shallows just outside Chichester Harbour. The three men had been rescued and an anchor secured. Then, with conditions worsening, for some reason the trio had decided to go back onboard, and now their engine had failed. Only the anchor was preventing them from floundering.

The station’s D class lifeboat Jacob was launched first, closely followed by the more powerful Atlantic 85 Derrick Battle. D class Helm Andrew Ferguson, on the crew since 2003, had never seen anything like it: ‘I’ve never experienced conditions that big on a D class. The yacht was right in the middle of all the breaking surf. It gets absolutely huge over there.’ 

With the yacht just a couple of hundred metres offshore, in barely a metre and a half of water, the plan was to send the smaller D class in first and secure a tow rope before the larger lifeboat pulled the vessel to safety. Although in plain sight of the lifeboat station, the passage across was horrific. 

‘I pretty much lost sight of the boat 90% of the time. I couldn’t see it because of the sea conditions,’ remembers Andrew.

Hayling Island D class Crew Members (l–r) Lloyd Pepperell, Andrew Ferguson (helm), Jack Anson

Photo: RNLI/Jonathan Bradbury

Hayling Island's D class crew (l–r): Lloyd Pepperell, Andrew Ferguson (helm), Jack Anson
 

'There was a look of sheer fear on their faces'

Halfway there, Andrew paused in a trough to check his volunteer crew were happy to continue. Up front, shifting position to provide ballast (for stability) over the lifeboat’s bow, Lloyd and 19-year-old Jack Anson gave the thumbs up. 

Behind them, on the Atlantic 85, Sharon Swan was among three other crew preparing to throw the tow rope once the D class crew were able to board the flailing vessel: ‘The yacht was being pitched and thrown on the sand underneath. I don’t think it could have sustained that for much longer,’ says Sharon.

The flooding tide was threatening to drive the yacht ashore. Conditions were so severe it took Andrew several attempts to get Jacob close enough for Lloyd to jump aboard. ‘I could actually lock eyes on the guys. There was just that look of sheer fear on their faces,’ says Andrew.

On the third attempt, as he approached the stern of the yacht, the D class rose up just as the yacht dropped, giving Lloyd the perfect platform to jump across. Finding no lifejackets onboard, he radioed Andrew to return and three were thrown over.

After making the men safe, Lloyd made his way to the bow. A perfect throw of the tow rope from the Atlantic 85 crew saw the vessel finally secured. Lloyd cut the anchor free.

Atlantic 85 crew volunteers (l–r) Thomas Lincoln, David Macpherson (helm) Sharon Swan

Photo: RNLI/Jonathan Bradbury

Hayling Island's Atlantic 85 volunteers (l–r): Thomas Lincoln, David Macpherson (helm) Sharon Swan 

‘They wouldn’t have got out of that, no way'

‘I belly crawled back over and into the back of the boat, radioed and said you can start towing,’ says Lloyd. He has no doubt the actions of the crew saved all three lives that day. ‘They wouldn’t have got out of that, no way.’ 

The tow back to Chichester Harbour was as challenging as the journey out, but it wasn’t the end of the story. In February of this year, Helms Andrew Ferguson and Daniel MacPherson were awarded the Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum for their courage, determination, decision making skills and boat-handling skills.

The same recognition also went to Lloyd Pepperell for ‘his extreme selflessness and courage as well as stamina when boarding and acting independently on the casualty vessel’.

For their courage, Vellum Service Certificates were also accorded to D class crew Jack Anson and Atlantic 85 crew Sharon Swan, Elly Briggs and Thomas Lincoln.

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