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Yarmouth’s Severn class lifeboat passes by The Needles. There is one crew member at the front of the boat on the lower deck, and five crew looking out from the upper deck.

‘It was like looking for a needle in a haystack’

Photo: Andrew Parish

When two paddleboarders go missing, seven lifeboats launch to their rescue. Will the crews find them before darkness falls?

Monday 3 July. Yarmouth, Isle of Wight. A mild summer’s evening.

RNLI Mechanic Richard Pimm had been working at the lifeboat station all day. He’s a third-generation crew member who signed up when he was 17, and he’s been working as the full-time mechanic at the station for 9 years. ‘It’s a real family affair,’ Richard says. ‘I was christened on Yarmouth’s lifeboat – and so was my brother, who’s on the crew too.’

Less than half an hour after arriving home from work, Richard’s pager went off. Like several other volunteers that evening, he dropped what he was doing and hurried to the station. Just 16 minutes later, at 6.45pm, Yarmouth’s Severn class lifeboat Eric and Susan Hiscock (Wanderer) launched.

The crew were joining a search for two paddleboarders who had been missing from Swanage, in Dorset, for several hours. Local lifeboats had been searching through the afternoon but hadn’t yet found them. ‘As the search goes on, they bring in more assets,’ explains Richard.

‘We’ve helped out flank stations like this before,’ adds Crew Member Peter Lemonius, a second-generation crew member who has been volunteering on the station’s Severn class lifeboat for 20 years. ‘We make sure every angle is covered before daylight fades.’

The crew powers to the scene

The Yarmouth volunteers headed to the search area they’d been given by the Coastguard. As they navigated through The Needles Channel, they faced choppy seas and a fresh offshore breeze. The crew knew this would make the search all the more challenging. 

Yarmouth Mechanic Richard Pimm

Photo: RNLI/Yarmouth

Richard Pimm, Mechanic at Yarmouth RNLI

‘The sea was reasonably lumpy going past The Needles, so we were all inside the boat,’ says Richard. ‘As we got nearer the scene, we started getting information and putting together a plan of action.’ 

Peter says: ‘It was only as we got closer that we were really aware of how many assets there were down there – helicopters, other lifeboats. We could see it all going on as we approached.’

From land, sea and air

An extensive search was well underway. Yarmouth were joining six other lifeboats from Swanage, Poole, Mudeford and Lymington, as well as HM Coastguard search and rescue helicopters and a National Police Air Service helicopter. Searching on land were several Coastguard Rescue Teams and Dorset Police. ‘In my time on the crew, this was probably the biggest multi-agency rescue I’ve ever been involved in,’ says Richard.

Watch this video of Poole’s B class lifeboat powering through the waves during the search.

The crew reached their search area. ‘We slowed down,’ remembers Richard. ‘Me, Miles Norris and Tom Blackburn went up top to start a lookout. Coxswain Howard Lester, Graham Benton and my brother Alex Pimm were down below with Peter Lemonius, and they started working out search patterns that the Coastguard had given us. It must have been about 5 minutes into our search when all of us – even those down below – glimpsed something.’

Initially the crew thought it was a Waverider buoy – a yellow buoy anchored to the seabed that measures the height and direction of waves. 

Yarmouth’s Severn class lifeboat Eric and Susan Hiscock (Wanderer) leaving the harbour

Photo: Lydia Pitman

Yarmouth’s Severn class lifeboat is great for searching – the crew can get up on the upper deck for a good vantage point

‘Tom was looking through the binoculars and as we got closer, he said: “It's a paddleboarder!”. We instantly thought: “Oh my god, we’ve found them!” It was an amazing feeling,’ says Richard. ‘Then the realisation set in that it was only one paddleboarder – two had been reported missing. It was very bittersweet.’

They’d found one of the missing paddleboarders – more than 4 miles from the Swanage coast where he went missing. He’d spent 7 hours floating out at sea with his board – he was exhausted. 

A tricky operation

The crew needed to get the paddleboarder onboard as quickly, and safely, as possible.

‘Miles was manoeuvring the boat alongside, mindful there was a casualty in the water,’ says Peter. 

Richard says: ‘Peter, Tom and I went to recover the paddleboarder with the A-frame. The A-frame’s on the side of the boat. It has two strops and a hoist, which we drop in the water. It took a while to get him out. You have a huge adrenaline rush when you’re a rescuee and he kept trying to grab us to pull himself out.’

Yarmouth’s Severn class lifeboat Eric and Susan Hiscock (Wanderer) by The Needles

Photo: Andrew Parish

You can see the A-frame on the side of Yarmouth’s Severn class lifeboat

‘Getting him onboard was tricky,’ says Peter. ‘With the boat and sea rolling, and the paddleboarder being quite confused after his ordeal, it took three of us on the side deck to get him into the strop and pull him onboard.’

Finally, the casualty was safely in the lifeboat.

‘Then the first thing he said to us was: “Where is my son?”’ says Peter.

‘It was a gut-punch’

The missing paddleboarders were a father and his 16-year-old son. Around midday, they’d started paddling in the calm, sheltered waters of Studland Bay, not realising how strong the offshore winds were. Before long, the pair had been pulled out to sea by strong currents – and the father had lost sight of his son. 

‘It was a gut-punch because we didn’t know it was a father and son,’ says Richard. ‘And you instantly worry because if he was that far out, where was his son? But we had to concentrate on the dad.’

Peter says: ‘The paddleboarder was clearly not well but the real thing that hit me was his fear and panic. Not for himself but for his son. Where is he? Where had he gone? Our initial thoughts were to try and question him – find out when he last saw his son, where they were heading – so we could work out where to start looking. But we needed to get the dad some casualty care. Knowing what we know now, he was suffering from hypothermia. But it wasn’t immediately obvious, as he was so focused.’

Richard took the paddleboarder into the lifeboat’s wheelhouse and began casualty care. 

Peter, who also looked after the paddleboarder, says: ‘We put him on oxygen and tried to warm him up with blankets. He was cold and hypothermic. Being out at sea for hours, concerned for his safety – and his son’s safety – and then finally getting into a lifeboat and knowing he’d be looked after, he’d started to relax. And then all the signs of hypothermia started poking up.’

Yarmouth Crew Member Peter Lemonius

Photo: RNLI/Yarmouth

Peter Lemonius, Crew Member at Yarmouth RNLI

‘Within a few minutes of getting him inside the wheelhouse, he went downhill. He started to cramp up horrendously. His body temperature was going down and he stopped making sense,’ says Richard. ‘He’d been out there for hours in just a buoyancy aid and swimming trunks, so we’d sensed what was coming.’

‘All we could do on the lifeboat is try to keep him warm,’ says Peter. ‘We spoke to Howard, the coxswain, and said we need to get him into a helicopter.’
Richard says: ‘We had to ask the rescue helicopter to drop their paramedic down and do an assessment on him.’

‘Then they winched him away and got him to hospital,’ says Peter. 

‘Every crest of a wave looks like a paddleboarder’

‘We carried on doing the search pattern we were initially given. Then we went back over it. We could see other lifeboats around us, doing their search patterns,’ says Richard. ‘By that time, the light had started to fade. It’s a lot harder to search for someone in the water in the dark. Especially when every crest of a wave looks like a paddleboarder.’ 

‘So we came to the end of our search pattern and the Coastguard said: “Standby, we’re going to give you a new search reference”. It's a very sinking feeling when the light goes. You think: “Right, OK, we really need to up our game”. We started doing our own search pattern while we waited for further instructions,’ says Richard. ‘And, about 10 minutes after the light went, it came over the radio that a person had been found wandering by Bournemouth Pier. Five minutes later, it was confirmed it was the son. That was very emotional. I think I could hear all the crews and all the teams breathe a sigh of relief.’

The son had been found by police on a beach in Bournemouth after managing to get himself to shore at Hengistbury Head – 5 miles from where his dad was found.

‘With these sorts of incidents, where people have been in the water for a long time, it’s fairly rare to have a 100% positive outcome like this,’ says Peter. 'It was like looking for a needle in a haystack and then actually finding that needle. We were elated – it’s a fantastic feeling.’

A rescue you helped make possible

‘It was an amazing rescue but scary at the same time,’ says Richard. ‘But you go into autopilot – it’s what we train for on countless nights. We have our set jobs and we work as a team.’

Richard describes how their training, which your kind support helps fund, kicked in that day: ‘We used a lot of our training on that shout: searching, person recovery, casualty care. When you look at it from the outside, it seems like a lot of work – but when you’re in the situation, it just flows. That’s from all the training we get. It all just clicks and you automatically start working round each other. It’s second nature to us. And it’s not just on our boat – it’s also between the lifeboats, Coastguard, and police. We all worked as one big team – one crew – and I felt really proud to be involved.’

The crew at Yarmouth RNLI stand on the deck of their lifeboat, with brightly coloured nautical bunting flying in the wind above them

Photo: RNLI/Yarmouth

The crew at Yarmouth, L-R: Richard Pimm (Mechanic), Graham Benton, Howard Lester (Coxswain), Alex Stewart, Alex Pimm, Tom Blackburn, Peter Lemonius, Kevin Taylor, Josh Stevens. Adam Preece, Steve Barclay, Robert Scott, Guy Aston

As well as their first-class training, it was the crew’s kit and equipment that helped them to be lifesavers that day. ‘The height of the Severn makes us good for searching – that turned out to be bang on the money,’ says Richard. ‘And the binoculars helped straight away to identify whether it was a Waverider buoy or the paddleboarder. And when the light started to fade, we had an image intensifier to help us see in the dark.’ 

Luck played a part too.

‘You might think it’d be easy to find someone in the water – but given there had been lifeboats and helicopters out there looking for hours, it just proves that people are not easy to spot in the water at all,’ reflects Peter. ‘To arrive on scene and find him there and then? Wow. That’s never happened before. He’s just so lucky, this guy.’ 

‘That’s what we’re here for’

‘It was a rescue I'm never going to forget,’ says Richard. ‘It will definitely stick in my memory for a lifetime. I think we all slept very happy that night.’ 

‘Without the RNLI, that guy would have died that night. There’s no shadow of a doubt,’ says Peter. ‘If you were to paint a picture of the RNLI and try to describe what we’re for, this is exactly it. We go to sea and help people. That’s what we’re here for.' 

If you're going paddleboarding, here are four things to remember:

  • Wear a buoyancy aid. This will help keep you afloat and give you time to recover if you fall in. 
  • Carry your phone in a waterproof pouch. Carry this on you in your buoyancy aid pocket or around your neck. In a coastal emergency, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard. If you’re inland, ask for the fire and rescue service.
  • Wear the correct leash. A leash will help you stay connected to your board if you get into trouble and help you float. Choosing the correct leash is really important – most boards come with an ankle leash but this may not be suitable for the environment you’re planning to paddle in.
  • Avoid offshore winds. Often with offshore winds, the water looks idyllic and calm – but this can be deceptive. They will quickly blow you and your paddleboard far out to sea, which can make it extremely tiring and difficult to paddle back to shore.

It’s the generosity of people like you that powers our lifesavers, like the volunteers at Yarmouth, to the rescue. Thank you so much for your kind support.