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‘I can’t thank the crew enough’

A tearful reunion for a mother and her son after the wind blows his inflatable dinghy more than a mile out to sea.

A crew member stands on the deck of a lifeboat, looking down at a small, orange, inflatable dinghy with a young child aboard

Photo: RNLI/Dungeness

It was a summer’s evening at the Richardson’s. Stuart, a volunteer mechanic on Dungeness’s all-weather lifeboat (ALB), was doing what he does often – thinking about the weather: ‘A big gust of wind came through the garden. It was quite unusual because it was the warmest day of the year. I said to my wife: “That could catch some people out”.’

Another family was enjoying an evening on the beach when they noticed the wind get up suddenly. They called their children out of the water. But one, an 11-year-old boy in an inflatable dinghy, didn’t quite make it. The dinghy started to drift away from the shore into deeper water, the boy still in it.

Back at the Richardson’s, Stuart’s worst fears were realised when the words ‘Launch ALB’ flashed up on his crew pager. Quickly, he made his way to the lifeboat station to join his crew mates and get briefed by the coxswain.

‘It was a clear day and visibility was good,’ remembers Stuart. ‘We got some more information from the Coastguard – the boy’s name, Tommy, and where he was on the beach when the wind started to blow him out to sea.’

Dungeness’s all-weather lifeboat powers through the waves

Photo: Stephen Duncombe

‘There was nothing behind him – just the North Sea’

‘With the new information from the Coastguard, we could track our way downwind in the direction we thought he would be. A force 6 wind was blowing against the tide so it was a bit choppy further out to sea, making it hard to see anyone. Then we spotted the inflatable. There was nothing behind it – the wind was just carrying it out into the North Sea.

‘It’s a sigh of relief when you can see someone in a boat. There’s always that fear that they’re going to try and swim to shore. Tommy did everything that we’d want him to do – he didn’t leave the inflatable and he didn’t stand up – standing up is when people can topple over. He wasn’t panicking. He was really calm.’

‘It was a very small inflatable and quite a large lifeboat, so we had to be very careful that we didn’t rock him and knock him into the water. As soon as we got close enough, I put my arm around him and lifted him towards us. He said he was cold, but OK. I told him he’d done very well and wasn’t in any trouble, and that he was safe now.

‘We took him into the cabin to warm him up – put some towels around him and continued to reassure him. Lots of people fall into shock once they’ve had the relief and adrenaline of being rescued. When that draws away, you can see the blood drain from their faces sometimes. But Tommy was really good. We just kept reassuring him and gave him some soft drinks to get the taste of saltwater out of his mouth.

‘He didn’t have any shoes on because he was playing on the beach. Walking on the pebbles can be quite painful so I ended up giving him a piggy-back up the beach, which I did kind of regret by the time I’d got to the top!

‘We brought Tommy into the crew room and his family were all there. I shed a tear – it was quite emotional.’

‘I shouted out to him to stay still and stay on the boat, and he listened,’ says Tommy’s mum. ‘I can’t explain the emotions I went through when I saw him drifting out to sea. In that moment, I felt like I lost him. I can’t thank the crew enough for saving my child and bringing him back safely.’

‘We found him more than a mile away, which shows just how quickly an offshore wind can blow an inflatable out to sea,’ says Stuart. ‘We would encourage people visiting the coast to always check which way the wind is blowing before entering the sea.

‘Also, by choosing a lifeguarded beach and swimming between the red and yellow flags you will be safer too. Our highly-trained lifeguards can keep a watchful eye over you while you enjoy the water.’

An RNLI lifeguard walks along the shore, with a red and yellow flag in the background

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Stay safe at the beach

Although great fun when they’re used at the pool, inflatables aren’t designed for the beach and can easily get swept out to sea. If you're heading to the seaside, here are five top tips to help you and your family stay safe.

1. Float to Live
If you find yourself struggling in the water, or if you fall in unexpectedly, Float to Live:

  • Tilt your head back with ears submerged.
  • Relax and try to breathe normally.
  • Move your hands to help you stay afloat.
  • It's OK if your legs sink, we all float differently.
  • Spread your arms and legs to improve stability.

2. Choose a lifeguarded beach
Visiting a lifeguarded beach gives you and your family the protection of highly trained lifeguards. They can see the dangers develop, prevent accidents before they happen and respond instantly if anyone gets into difficulty. 

3. Know the risks and what to do
Being aware of the dangers – from rip currents to tides, cold water shock to waves – and how to minimise them will help you stay safe.

4. Dial 999 or 112 in an emergency
When you go to the beach, always carry a means of calling for help. If you get into trouble, or spot someone else in difficulty, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard. 

5. Know your flags
If you visit a lifeguarded beach, there will be flags to show you where it’s safe to swim. If you’re planning to swim or bodyboard, stay between the red and yellow flags.

RNLI lifesavers rely on donations – large and small – to get children just like Tommy home safely. Will you help with a donation today?