Donate now

The amazing disappearing beach

Teenage friends relaxing on the beach at Cleethorpes had no idea the water was rising around them – until it was almost too late. 

Three crew members from Cleethorpes RNLI onboard their D class lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams 

Cleethorpes Main Beach shelves very gently – sounds nice, right? Easy. Calm. Safe.

But when the tide comes in, it’s dramatic. ‘It comes in faster than you can walk; you’d have to run to keep up with it,’ according to local lifeboat Crew Member Matt McNally. There are large sandbanks, which look like innocent parts of the beach at low tide, but when the North Sea rushes in they quickly become islands, getting smaller and smaller until they disappear.

Tidal cut-off is common. But that doesn’t make it any less scary for those who get caught out. And when the lifeboat crew heard that three children were stranded one July afternoon, the adrenaline started pumping

‘We knew we only had about half an hour before that bank would be completely gone,’ says Crew Member Phil Playford. ‘We had to get the boat in the water quickly. It does hit home when it’s children in danger. You can’t help but think: “That could be my child."

Our main worry was that they might try to swim or wade to safety before we got to them.’

Danger between the banks

The channels that form between the sandbanks as the tide floods can run at 8 knots. That’s almost twice as fast as a rip current. An Olympic swimmer wouldn’t stand a chance, and nor would a frightened 13-year-old. 

Cleethorpes Crew Member Phil Playford, with spiky brown hair and wearing glasses, looks straight ahead at the camera

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Crew Member Phil Playford knew they had to launch quickly with the water rising

The RNLI volunteers launched the D class lifeboat James Burgess II, with Steve Burton at the helm and Matt, Phil and Jamie King as crew. Steve had the trickiest job on the way out, avoiding the banks and undulating sand that, minutes before, were the beach. He took the lifeboat as close as he dared to the ever-vanishing sandbank where the children had been spotted. Then Phil and Matt jumped overboard, to wade ashore to help.

‘The sand underfoot was quite uneven,’ says Phil. ‘At one point, the water’s at your knees. Then you take a step forward and it’s at your waist.’ Back onboard the lifeboat, Steve and Jamie kept a close watch. ‘As soon as the crew leave the lifeboat, they become your casualties too,’ says Steve.

A chill day

Pals Lucia and Ellie-Mae (13) had had a lovely time on the beach. ‘We went out for a chill day,’ says Lucia. ‘We were sunbathing and splashing in the water. We did walk out quite far, but we followed the water out, and we thought we’d be able to follow it back in too. Then as we were walking back the water came in around us.’

When Phil and Matt spotted the girls and shouted hello, Lucia and Ellie-Mae started walking – in the opposite direction. ‘We thought we were in trouble!’ Lucia recalls. Phil adds: ‘I think it was also the quite scary fact of two big men in yellow suits coming towards you, and a bright orange boat!’

The D class lifeboat from Cleethorpes powers through the waves, with three crew onboard

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

D class lifeboat James Burgess II and crew

People skills

The girls soon realised that the bright orange boat was the only way off the sandbank. And that no one was angry with them. ‘The lifeboat people were lovely,’ says Lucia. ‘They were caring. They didn’t blame us. They understood.’

For Phil and Matt, this rescue wasn’t about technical skills in seamanship or navigation, but something just as important. ‘It was all about people skills,’ says Phil. ‘Staying calm and relaxed so the girls wouldn’t panic. Explaining to them that it wasn’t safe to go back the way they’d come, and to come with us and we’d make sure they’d get back safely.

‘Also, the original call we got said there were three people stranded, so we had to make sure there was no one else with them. The girls were very calm and easy to deal with, and we assured them they’d done nothing wrong.’

By this time, Steve and Jamie had found a safer spot, with fewer seabed lumps and bumps, to get the girls and their rescuers back onboard. Once the volunteers were sure that the initial report was a mistake, and that there weren’t any more people stranded, they headed for the station, popping lifejackets on the young friends and reassuring them.

Ellie-Mae and Lucia, wearing lifejackets, onboard the D class lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Cleethorpes

Ellie-Mae and Lucia as they are taken to safety 

But there was an opportunity to educate as well. ‘When we were nearly home, Steve stopped the boat to show the girls the sandbank they’d been picked up off, and there was only about 2 foot still visible. You could see the realisation on their faces that it was more serious than they’d thought.’

‘We were dead shocked,’ says Lucia. ‘When we saw that the water had come in over where we were and we were like: “Oh my God, no way!”’ Indeed, by the time they were back in the lifeboat station, the sandbank had completely disappeared.

Relief all round

Then it was time for what every teenager dreads: calling the parents. ‘I think the parents were a little worried,’ says Phil, ‘but when Lucia’s dad turned up we explained that it was just one of those things and the girls hadn’t done anything wrong. The parents were grateful and relieved more than anything.’

It was a relief for Lucia too: ‘My dad was very nice about it. Like, he didn’t think anything like this would ever happen. None of us did.’

Cleethorpes lifeboat crew know that it happens all the time. Right now, work is underway on a new station building for them, which will be able to accommodate a B class lifeboat as well as the D class. It will also have more room for training and changing, and a new RNLI shop. Most importantly, for shouts like this, the new station is on the beach and will have its own slipway, so the crew won’t have to cross a busy road and packed promenade in an emergency. Launching will be quicker and safer.

Crew Members Phil and Matt stand knee-deep in the water, with Steve at the helm in the lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Crew Members Phil and Matt wade to the rescue with Steve at the helm watching over them

New era, same fast tides

Jamie, who has since taken a full-time job with the RNLI as area lifesaving manager covering Cleethorpes, Bridlington, Withernsea, Mablethorpe and Humber, says: ‘This new station will represent a huge change to the lifesaving service we provide, and also to the way our volunteers can train. In fact, we’ll be looking to recruit more crew, because of the new, additional lifeboat, and because we’ll actually have space for more people!’

As the weather warms up, the people of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and further afield will grab their buckets and spades and head for the sands at Cleethorpes. We know that some of them will get cut off by the tide. And we know that, thanks to your kindness, the RNLI’s volunteers will be ready to help. 

They probably won’t find Lucia and Ellie-Mae stranded again though. ‘We’d never walk out that far again,’ says Lucia. ‘And we’ve learned about the tide times and to always check them. If I saw the crew again I’d just say thank you. They helped us so much and they were so lovely.’

Stay safe: Tidal cut-off 

  • Understand how tides work. Tide times and heights vary throughout the month – a clear beach at 5pm yesterday may be submerged at 5pm today.
  • Check tide tables. Don’t judge the speed of the tide by eye. Instead use tide tables or tide apps to check times before you set out.
  • Seek local knowledge. Read signs advising of tide times and hazards. Speak with RNLI lifeguards, the National Coastwatch Institution and local people.
  • Observe your surroundings. A waterline on rocks, debris line on the beach or demarcation between wet and dry sand can all indicate where high tide comes up to.
  • Know where your exits are. If walking on a beach that becomes cut off at high tide, make sure there’s an alternative exit such as a path or track. Don’t take unnecessary risks if there isn’t.
  • If you do get cut off, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard. If it’s safe to, wait where you are. If not, seek higher ground.

The UK and Ireland have some of the biggest tidal ranges in the world; changes in depth between high and low water can be as much as 15m. Don't get caught out.

Learn the risks