25 November 2016

A hat trick rescue: three Barmouth crews; three sailors; one capsized dinghy

Struggling in the cold, dark sea, three football fans wondered if it was game over.

After a night out in Barmouth watching Portugal beat Wales in the Euros on 6 July 2016, three sailors rowed a small dinghy back to their yacht.

With their lifejackets and VHF devices left onboard the yacht, the men suddenly found themselves in deep trouble when a wave capsized the dinghy. A strong ebb tide was flowing at 4 or 5 knots, and the trio were quickly swept out from the harbour to the open sea.

Struck by the cold and the power of the waves, the sailors cried for help. Eventually, someone heard them and alerted the Coastguard. Barmouth inshore lifeboat crew launched The Rotarian Clive Tanner at 1.18am, joined by the Mersey class Moira Barrie 18 minutes later. The search was on.

Panorama of Barmouth Beach by day: The sailors entered the water close to the harbour (left of photo), but were swept out to the open sea (right of photo).
Panorama of Barmouth Beach by day: The sailors entered the water close to the harbour (left of photo), but were swept out to the open sea (right of photo).

A light in the dark

Together with a Coastguard helicopter, the two lifeboat crews scoured the choppy sea for any sign of casualties. Powerful searchlights from the all-weather lifeboat joined handheld torches from the inshore lifeboat. But the trio were now far from the harbour, where they’d first gone in.

Barmouth Coxswain Pete DaviesPhoto: Dan Wyre
Barmouth Coxswain Pete Davies
‘They wouldn't have had much longer’
Pete Davies
Coxswain, Barmouth RNLI

‘At that point, we weren’t sure if we were looking for individuals in the water or on a vessel,' says Coxswain Pete Davies. 'Luckily for them, they’d climbed back aboard their dinghy. But with no buoyancy aids, and the boat half-full of chilly water, they were really panicking.

'We found out later that they could see our lights and one was waving the seat around from the dinghy to attract attention. They were using their hands to try to bail out.’

After initially finding nothing, the lifeboat crews widened their search area - they knew the strong currents at Barmouth could have dragged the sailors out to sea. And, just after 3am, the volunteers spotted the casualties. ‘They’d been swept over the sand bar and quite far into the bay,’ explains Mechanic Daryl Jones. ‘They were cold, exhausted and extremely shaken.’

Helen Iles - Barmouth Crew Member, Primary School Teacher and PhotographerPhoto: Dan Wyre
Helen Iles - Barmouth Crew Member, Primary School Teacher and Photographer
‘They could see us searching ... we were so close to them in the dark’
Helen Iles
Crew Member, Barmouth RNLI

'They could see the lights onshore, they could see us searching,' says Crew Member Helen Iles. 'They could see flares; but they had no way of signalling to us. We were so close to them in the dark, and they were just bailing out the whole time. Fortunately, they decided to stay together too - sometimes stranded people start to give up and one swims for help. Then you're in trouble.'

Adds Coxswain Pete: ‘As we pulled them aboard the lifeboat, it was clear the men were too cold and tired to help themselves; the oldest of the three could hardly move his legs.’

Welcome warmth

With the help of tea, woolly thermals and warm showers back at the station, the casualties soon began to recover. One explained that when he saw the lifeboat’s searchlights and heard the helicopter, he knew he’d need a final burst of energy to get the attention of the rescuers.

‘Even after a relatively warm day, the water was cold and rough,' says Pete. 'They wouldn’t have had much longer, and I think that dawned on them pretty quickly.'

To say thanks, the three casualties bought the crew some bottles of wine from their favourite Indian restaurant, close to the lifeboat station.

The three Barmouth RNLI crews who helped the three sailors: the all-weather lifeboat crew; the inshore lifeboat crew; and the shore crew.Photo: Dan Wyre
The three Barmouth RNLI crews who helped the three sailors: the all-weather lifeboat crew; the inshore lifeboat crew; and the shore crew.

Would you know what to do?

Lack of storage facilities ashore mean that many sailors leave their lifejackets and VHF radios onboard their sailing or motorboat when ferrying to and from the shore, leaving them vulnerable to the dangers of the water.

British and Irish waters are dangerously unpredictable. Find out what to do if you find yourself in the water unexpectedly. Take our Respect The Water challenge.