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A rocky rescue at Cullercoats

Even top swimmers can get caught out by the sea, as Christine found out when she was hit by a wave and slammed onto jagged rocks. 

Cullercoats’ Atlantic 85 B class lifeboat, Hylton Burdon

Photo: Helen Cowan

Hylton Burdon, the Atlantic 85 B class lifeboat at Cullercoats 

Christine Burns loves the sea. A strong and confident open water swimmer, she’s represented Great Britain in five European triathlons and has a gold medal to her name. Yet, on Saturday 31 July 2021, while kayaking at Cullercoats Bay in North Tyneside, the sea took Christine off guard.

‘It was a warm afternoon and there was a bit of a swell,’ she remembers. ‘But nothing that felt unsafe. My friend and I hoped to see dolphins that had been spotted in the bay.’

With lifejackets on, Christine and her friend paddled out. Venturing towards a rocky outcrop called Bear’s Back, in the hope of seeing a dolphin, Christine suddenly saw a big wave coming towards her.

‘I tried to turn myself around so I could ride the wave,’ she explains. ‘But I couldn’t get around in time and then that was me, off the kayak. No matter how much of a good swimmer I am, I realised this could be really serious.’

‘I was in shock’

Plunged into the water, Christine was pushed towards the rocks. The waves crashed over her, dragging her under and slamming her into the rocks.

Propelled by another wave, Christine managed to grip the sharp rocks and pull herself up. Blood poured from cuts on her hands and feet. The kayak had hit her on the back of the head too – it wasn’t until later that she found an egg-sized lump on her head.

‘I was in shock and remember thinking about the fact I’d lost my flip flops,’ she recalls. ‘As if they’re important.’

Christine heaved the kayak onto the rocks. She thought if she could get her paddle, which was floating in the water, she’d be able to paddle to safety.

‘I just wasn’t thinking straight,’ she says. ‘My friend pointed to a spot further down the rocks where the water was calmer. He climbed out and said that getting the paddle was too dangerous. Stupidly, using his kayak and paddle, I went back in the sea to get it. When I saw the breaking waves around the rocks my legs started shaking. I realised how dangerous it was and returned to the more sheltered area where he was.’

Christine Burns, who was rescued by Cullercoats RNLI

Photo: Christine Burns

Christine Burns, who was rescued by Cullercoats RNLI

The call for help 

A member of public who had seen events unfold called the Coastguard, who alerted Cullercoats RNLI

Crew Member Alex Bateman’s pager went off at 4.32pm when he was preparing mac ‘n’ cheese for his younger sister who was visiting from London for the first time since lockdown. Minutes later, Alex was at the station with his crewmates helping to prepare the B class lifeboat Hylton Burdon for launch. ‘The currents are unpredictable at Bear’s Back,’ Alex says. ‘There’s one bit called “South Rock Hole” where water churns you out at a different place to where you expect to be.’

At the same time, two RNLI lifeguards, including Madeleine Brandon, spotted Christine and her friend. They climbed across the rocks to help, keeping in radio contact with the lifeboat. Because the water was shallow, the lifeboat couldn’t get close to the rocks. The safest and quickest way to get Christine and her friend to safety was for Crew Member Alex to get in the water and retrieve the paddle for them, so the friends could then kayak to the lifeboat.

‘I swam from the lifeboat to the rocks,’ says Alex. ‘It was a challenging swim, but I trust my training and kit. Even when I’m alone in the water, the crew are looking out for me. It’s a team effort.’

Alex reunited Christine with her paddle. With Christine and her friend in their kayaks, he waded through the water with a kayak on either side, pushing them in the direction of the lifeboat.

‘Christine had some scrapes, but didn’t want any medical attention,’ says Alex. ‘They asked to be dropped off at the harbour and were very grateful. They were a bit embarrassed, but there was nothing to be embarrassed about. We get called out to burly fishermen caught out by the sea.’

Christine was in shock for some time. She reflects: ‘It wasn’t until the Monday morning that I broke down in tears and it hit me how lucky I’d been. I’m a very cautious person. I would never go swimming or kayaking alone. I can’t thank the RNLI enough – they were so patient and lovely. I was blown away.’

As for the dolphins, Christine has since been on a boat trip to see them. ‘Swimming or kayaking with them is still on the list, but maybe next year and without a rescue from the RNLI,’ she says.

Enjoy the water safely this summer

Madeleine Brandon, Cullercoats RNLI Lifeguard

Photo: Madeleine Brandon

Get safety tips from Lifeguard Madeleine 

Heading out on the water? Here are some safety tips from Cullercoats Lifeguard Madeleine Brandon: ‘If you’re kayaking or doing any watersports in the sea, it’s a good idea to check the weather forecast and sea conditions, as well as asking lifeguards or local people for advice about the area.

‘Let someone on shore know where you are planning to go and what time you plan to be back. Make sure you’re wearing a personal flotation device (a PFD) that fits well and know your own limits. Also, carry a means of calling for help – a VHF radio or a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch fastened to your body or PFD.’

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