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Courage and skill by the sea wall

New Brighton lifeboat crew were put to the test by huge waves, near-gale gusts – and multiple souls in need of saving.

It was Tom McGinn’s birthday on 6 July 2020. Just 2 days after restaurants reopened after the first Covid-19 lockdown. It was a windy morning on the Wirral, but that wasn’t going to stop Tom and his partner Emily Craven from heading out for a special birthday breakfast. 

There was one thing that would make them drop everything though – the sounds of their pagers. Tom and Emily are both lifeboat crew members at New Brighton. And, with a report of someone in difficulty in the water, breakfast would have to wait. 

Helm Mike Stannard was paged too. On the way to the station, he saw the water and remembers thinking: ‘If it’s by the sea wall, this is going to be interesting.’

The wind was force 6, gusting near-gale force 7 – right at the top end of what New Brighton’s B class lifeboat could cope with. The sea was rough, with 4m swells. Strong onshore winds were making the waves crash into and rebound off the wall. The tide was flooding at a rate of 2 knots, giving those incoming waves even more speed. 

New Brighton’s Atlantic 85 B class lifeboat

Photo: Nicholas Leach

New Brighton’s B class lifeboat Charles Dibdin

Hoylake lifeboat crew was also paged, as backup. Their Shannon class all-weather lifeboat could easily handle a force 7. But with someone in the water in those conditions, the New Brighton volunteers knew they couldn’t wait. They would be going out in the B class and, as a crowd gathered on the sea wall, pointing towards the struggling man, they knew they were heading for that challenging area.

Order from chaos 

‘When there’s a lot going on, I try to break things down,’ says Mike. ‘So the first thing is to get the launch done safely.’ Mike, Emily, Tom and fellow Crew Member Oz Ramsey were on the water within 11 minutes of being paged. And the onlookers on the sea wall were a real help in finding the drowning man. In fact, someone had thrown him a lifering to help him keep afloat in the churning waves and spray. 

A shot from a helmet cam inside the lifeboat, showing rough seas and the harbour wall, where people are looking down on the scene

Photo: RNLI/New Brighton

The crew approach the sea wall 

Mike turned the boat's bow into the waves and hatched a plan. The sea bed in the area was too hard for an anchor to hold, so veering down was not an option. He was going to have to go in nose-first, using all his skill and focus to keep his crew safe. Meanwhile, more information was coming in from the Coastguard over the crew’s headsets. There was another person in the water. 

One thing at a time. The easiest way to get the man onboard was to toss him a throw bag and pull him into the (slightly) calmer water further away from the sea wall. ‘I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get the boat close enough without hurting him,’ Mike says. ‘There was no pattern to the waves. It was just a mass of water.’ But they had to try. 

The first two attempts had to be abandoned, as the water pulled the man away and waves crashed over the crew. Mike brought them out to sea again, to get ready for a third attempt. 

‘I could see a commotion on the rocks further to the east,’ he says, ‘so I assumed that was where the second person in the water was. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a boat in there; it was too shallow. And we had to focus on the man in front of us.’

A shot from a helmet cam inside the lifeboat, with two crew members pulling a man aboard

Photo: RNLI/New Brighton

Tom and Oz pull the man into the lifeboat

On the third attempt, Mike got close enough to the man for Tom to fling the throw bag to him. He grabbed hold. While Tom and Emily hauled on the line to bring him to the lifeboat, Mike brought them safely out of the danger zone. It took tremendous skill and seamanship. One mishandling or a second of lost concentration could have seen the lifeboat broadside on to one of the huge, unpredictable waves, resulting in a capsize – and six people in the water instead of two. 

The man was tall and exhausted, and it took all of Tom and Oz’s strength to haul him onboard. Emily got him into the recovery position, using her body weight and strength to keep him there as the lifeboat bounced about. His name was Niall, and he confirmed there was one other person – a woman – in the water. 

On top of the sea wall, the crowd were still pointing at something nearby. Thinking it might be the second person, Mike approached – then got a surprise. ‘I’ll never forget it,’ he says, ‘it was a dog, paddling away. No one had mentioned a dog.’ 

So they had to try to save the dog too. Out of kindheartedness, yes, but also in case an onlooker might try to save it and get into danger themselves. They got the chocolate Labrador onboard and his connection to the rescue was made clear. He made straight for his owner, Niall, and snuggled up close. 

The information coming over the radio was that the woman was now ashore on the rocks to the east. There was nothing the lifeboat crew could do for her. With Niall in rough shape, their priority was to get him into paramedic care – and quickly. Mike requested a net recovery, where the lifeboat is driven bow-first onto its carriage and caught in a net. It’s most common in rescues like this one, when seas are rough or when time is of the essence.

A lifeboat drives towards a net being held up by a tractor, so it can be recovered

Photo: Nicholas Leach

A net recovery

By the time Hoylake all-weather lifeboat arrived, Niall was in an ambulance. He was released from hospital later that evening.

One life lost 

Sadly, things had not gone so well in the area to the east. RNLI Lifeguard Cameron Jacobie arrived from nearby New Brighton Beach, where he was on duty. The woman already looked lifeless in the water – it is likely she had drowned before the lifeboat even had a chance to launch. 

Cameron was just 18 years old at the time. ‘I started to climb down the rocks,’ he says, ‘and it was quite treacherous. The waves were still pretty bad, but I was getting closer and closer. Then a massive wave completely wiped me out. 

‘We could see it was too late for her. So between myself and the police officers who were on scene, we decided that we couldn’t risk any more lives in those conditions. 

‘An experience like that – it definitely made me a better lifeguard. I learned more about myself in those 15 minutes than I had in the previous 18 years.’ 

Supporting each other 

RNLI lifeboat crews and lifeguards are determined to save every one. It was hard to accept that the sea claimed a life that day, but as time has passed, the remarkable feats of Mike and his crew in saving Niall and Jordy (the Labrador) have sunk in. 

Oz says: ‘It took a couple of days to calm down from the adrenaline of it all. People were filming the whole thing, and watching that footage later was something else.’ 

Emily adds: ‘People were checking in with each other over the phone, and going for coffees, making sure everyone was OK. The crew are amazing. If you need anything, they’re always there.’ 

Speaking of always, Emily and Tom have since got engaged – on the lifeboat. A lifeboat that’s seen triumph and loss, and so much love. 

Three crew members, Emily, Mike and Oz, sit inside the inshore lifeboat. They’re all smiling and Mike is holding a medal.

Photo: RNLI/Danielle Rush

Mike with his medal, in between Emily and Oz

A Bronze Medal earned 

For his skill, determination and courage, Helm Mike Stannard was awarded the RNLI’s Bronze Medal for Gallantry. The crew received Medal Service Certificates. 

Lifeboat Operations Manager Ian Thornton says: ‘Our thoughts are with the family involved. And we are extremely proud of Mike, Oz, Tom and Emily. They worked together as a team and showed an abundance of courage in a dangerous environment.’ 

Mike adds: ‘It’s an amazing recognition for the station, and all the time and effort people put into their training. No one goes on shouts looking for medals. But it’s a great honour to receive it.’

It’s the kind support of people like you that powers Mike, Emily, Oz and Tom to the rescue. Thank you so much for your generosity.