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The day The Wirral witnessed flying dogs

As the RNLI celebrates 20 years of hovercraft-enabled rescues, crew members remember the day they launched to save two women and got more than they bargained for.

RNLI Hoylake’s orange hovercraft, Hurley Spirit, powers across the shore after a call-out

Photo: RNLI/David Edwards

RNLI Hoylake’s Hurley Spirit returning from a call-out in Leasowe Bay

‘It was a cold day,’ says RNLI Hovercraft Crew Member Emily Jones. ‘I’d just come off my nightshift as a firefighter when we got the call.’ It’s early December 2020, and two dog walkers are stuck fast in the Leasowe Bay mud on Wirral Beach. They’re waist-deep in water and at the mercy of an incoming tide.

‘When you hear that people are in mud and there’s a rising tide, you’re thinking: “they’re going to drown if we don’t get them out quick,”’ adds Emily, who, like most of her crewmates, is a volunteer. Prior to 2002, the only way to reach casualties marooned in places like this was either by helicopter or by walking with the aid of crawling boards – a slow and laborious process.

Luckily for the dog walkers, nearby RNLI Hoylake is one of four RNLI stations that is home to a rescue hovercraft – the Hurley Spirit is swiftly launched, and the crew of four each has an important role. ‘Hovercraft handling is pretty challenging,’ Emily explains. ‘Especially when it’s windy. We often have to move around the craft to change the weight distribution, flag hazards to the pilot, and help them navigate a safe approach to casualties.’

Sharing an unflappable spirit

Once on scene, the Hoylake crew find the dog walkers now chest-deep in water. Their eight dogs keep vigil nearby on firmer ground. Using specialist equipment such as mud mats, a sand lance and lifting gear, the crew eventually manage to free the two women and get them on board. Four of the dogs, eager to reach their owners, have swum out to the hovercraft, and they hitch a ride too. While the remaining dogs are rounded up by the police, the casualties are flown to shore on the Hurley Spirit, where they are handed to the Wirral Coastguard Rescue Team.

‘This was a challenging rescue,’ says Hovercraft Commander Harry Jones. ‘With the tide flooding in quickly, every second counted.’ Packs of daredevil dogs aside, rescues like this aren’t unusual for the RNLI’s hovercraft crews. Each year, mudflats and sandbanks catch people out, and unless help arrives quickly, the consequences can be serious. 

Morecombe’s hovercraft, Hurley Flyer, flies across the Kent Channel
For many, stranded a long way from safety, hovercraft like RNLI Morecambe’s Hurley Flyer are their best hope of rescue

The launch of a real lifesaver

Fast and manoeuvrable, hovercraft can reach 30 knots. They perform a vital role, enabling crews to take the direct route to casualties in areas where the land is too soft for vehicles and the water is too shallow for boats. In the 20 years since the first craft – Hurley Flyer – was introduced at Morecambe RNLI in 2002, RNLI hovercraft crews have saved 70 lives. 

Those saved owe their lives to some clever design and some serious skills. Two fans underneath the craft provide lift, while two more fans at the rear – working in the same way as aeroplane propellers – provide the thrust. Steering is controlled via aerofoil-shaped rudders, which helps to explain why the hovercraft is flown by a pilot instead of being steered by a coxswain. 

The beauty of a hovercraft is that it can launch – via a ramp on its specially-designed transporter – from any flat area, such as a beach or even a car park. And because it can fly over mud, sand or shallow water, the hovercraft is ideal for shoreline searches and rescues. 

But while these unique craft make light work of navigating otherwise inaccessible places, piloting one is a bit like pushing a wonky-wheeled shopping trolley. It’s completely different to controlling a boat, and has been compared to driving on ice. You can’t just stop on a dime. ‘A hovercraft has no brakes and no reverse, so you have to anticipate everything,’ explains Leesa Espley, the RNLI’s first female hovercraft pilot, who volunteers at RNLI Hunstanton

The unsung hero 

For the crews at Hunstanton, Hoylake, Morecambe and Southend-on-Sea, the hovercraft has proved invaluable – since joining the fleet, RNLI hovercraft have launched over 1,466 times. ‘We couldn’t carry out many of our rescues using any other craft,’ Leesa adds. ‘The hovercraft allows us to reach casualties much faster and more safely.’ 

Southend-on-Sea’s hovercraft, Vera Ravine, during an evening training exercise. The hovercraft is silhouetted on a sparkling sea.

Photo: RNLI/Stephen Duncombe

Donations fund essential training for volunteers at stations like RNLI Southend-on-Sea, seen here aboard Vera Ravine on an evening exercise

Leesa’s husband is on the crew too, and neither of them could do what they do without the RNLI’s world-class training, which is funded by donations. Supporters’ donations also buy the fuel for each hovercraft’s twin diesel engines, and help to pay for the crews’ lifesaving gear and onboard medical equipment, which includes oxygen, a resuscitation kit and two stretchers. 

When their pagers go off, volunteers never know what sort of rescue they’ll be called to, so they have to be prepared for anything. Back on The Wirral, Hovercraft Commander Chris Williams reflects on the day in May this year when he and his RNLI Hoylake crew rescued a group of four paddleboarders who had been blown 1.5 miles out to sea. Chris says the paddleboarders were lucky the alarm was raised when it was, as they were in danger of being swept even further out. ‘If you’re heading out on a paddleboard, always check the weather forecast and tide times and tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back,’ he advises.

‘We know all the danger hotspots,’ says Emily. ‘But, unfortunately, visitors from outside the area aren’t always aware of the risks. And my heart still goes every time I hear those beeps.’ 

Help our lifesavers around the UK and Ireland keep launching to rescue – whether by lifeboat or hovercraft – by making a donation today.