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Pulled from under the waves: ‘They were crying – and so were we’

A half-capsized ocean rowing boat is out at sea, being battered by the terrifying waves of Storm Arwen. For the desperate rowers trapped inside it, the outlook is hopeless. But on the shore, lifeboat volunteers’ pagers are sounding.

New Quay RNLI Volunteer Coxswain Dan Potter wearing crew kit

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Volunteer Coxswain Dan Potter’s pager sounded early one November morning

‘It’s something that’s always amazed me,’ reflects Coxswain Dan Potter. ‘How we can go from being tucked up in a warm bed, fast asleep, to crashing through the waves in a lifeboat 10 minutes later.’

Having been a volunteer at New Quay Lifeboat Station for over 44 years, Dan is no stranger to bad weather. The weather that day was particularly violent. But as he picked the crew and prepared to launch their Mersey class lifeboat, the thing that worried Dan more than the ferocious gusts of gale-force 9 winds was the unknown. ‘You never know what to expect,’ he says. Early that stormy November morning, he didn’t have time to wonder. 

‘Our job was to get to the casualties as quickly as we possibly could,’ Dan says. But the conditions made the journey difficult:

From bad to worse

First to arrive at the scene was a Coastguard rescue helicopter. They lowered their winchman down to the ocean rowing boat. The winchman discovered that one of the casualties had a head injury. He needed to be treated as soon as possible, so they airlifted him off the boat and took him straight to hospital. This left three casualties inside the boat.

Barmouth RNLI lifeboat volunteers were also tasked to the rescue. Dan could see their lifeboat when he and his New Quay RNLI crewmates arrived at the scene. Nearby was the ocean rowing boat. Helpless against the force of the waves, it was damaged and sinking.

‘We called Barmouth lifeboat to ask if they had the casualties onboard,’ Dan recalls. ‘But they told us that three men were still inside the boat.’

The casualties’ view out the window of the sinking boat – it is on its side and a wave is coming over it

Photo: RNLI

The casualties’ terrifying view from inside the sinking boat

‘There was no time – the boat was sinking,’ Dan says. ‘I could see the casualties waving at me from inside. It was a horrible feeling.’

Dan drove the lifeboat towards the vessel, considering the best way to rescue the casualties. But by this point, the men were desperate. When they saw the lifeboat getting closer, they jumped out of their boat and into the sea. 

‘Once the casualties were in the water, we knew we had to grab them as quickly as possible,’ explains Dan. ‘With the sea conditions being so bad, it wouldn’t be long before they’d be scattered and we’d lose them.’

Despite the rapidly ticking clock, the lifeboat crew had to be very careful: ‘The other concern was crushing the men between the boats,’ Dan says. In the howling wind, with waves breaking over the top of the lifeboat, the crew had to rely on all their training as they manoeuvred closer to the three people in the water.

Now or never

‘If we didn’t get them now, we were going to watch these men drown in front of us. There was no second chance. It was now or never,’ says Dan.  

He held the lifeboat as still as possible beside the men as Crew Member Simon Rigby reached over the side. Dan says: ‘One of the casualties had gone under the water. But Simon reached down, grabbed him, and just didn’t let go.’

Simon pulled all three men onto the lifeboat. With the casualties safe at last, there wasn’t a dry eye onboard.

The lifeboat volunteers brought the men safely back to shore. Here’s their Mersey class lifeboat returning from the rescue:

‘It was unbelievably moving,’ Dan says. ‘Out of all the shouts I’ve been on in my life – and I’ve been on a few – that’s the one I’ll never forget.

A Letter of Thanks for the volunteers

For their seamanship, resilience, determination, and courage, the six lifeboat crew members who were involved in this rescue will each be awarded with a Letter of Thanks from the RNLI Chairman.

The lifeboat volunteers also received a personal thank you from the men they rescued that day. The rowers came back to the station to say thank you. They also made a kind donation, which will help the RNLI volunteers continue saving lives. 

You can help give RNLI lifesavers around the UK and Ireland all they need to continue launching to incredible rescues like this one by donating today.