6 October 2015

A night of courage and loss

Andrew McGeown's Sunday stroll with his Staffordshire bull terrier Arnold along Scarborough's South Bay had started like any other. What happened next sparked a train of events that would severely test the crew of Scarborough’s inshore lifeboat, and would become a defining moment for this close-knit seaside community.

As they passed the Spa, Arnold, who’d been running along the prom off his lead, vanished over the sea wall. Instinctively, Andrew (32) went in after his dog. But a spring tide combined with a 2m swell made climbing back over the wall all but impossible. With waves crashing over the top of the wall Andrew couldn’t safely be reached from the shore. He was now in real danger.

Andrew McGeown
Andrew McGeown

The launch

The 999 call came in to the Coastguard shortly before 6pm on 22 February, prompting a priority launch message for the crew of Scarborough’s inshore lifeboat. At 6.10pm, Senior Helm Rudi Barman and Crew Members Craig Burnett and Adam Beston were kitted up and on their way. As they emerged from the harbour into the teeth of a force 7 near gale, Rudi and his crew still didn’t know how many people were in the water.

Minutes later, the crew were on scene, and only then did the true scale of the problem hit them. It was 20 minutes before high tide and waves were smashing into the sea wall, then rebounding to create a seething cauldron of water and foam. ‘We were being battered,’ recalls Rudi, who skilfully manoeuvred the lifeboat – an inflatable D class designed for rescues in surf – as close to the wall as he dared go. But in the blackness there was no sign of Andrew.

The area where Andrew went missing.Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams
The area where Andrew went missing.

A difficult manoeuvre

The backwash from the ground swell made it impossible to make a tethered approach to the shore (a technique known as veering down). This would have put the crew at the mercy of incoming waves and in danger of capsize: ‘We were being hit from all directions,’ says Rudi, ‘We had to be able to escape waves coming from our beam and stern.’

‘We were being hit from all directions. We really had to be on our game.’
Rudi Barman
Senior Helm, Scarborough RNLI

Guided by signals from the shore, Rudi repositioned and reversed in a second time, head to sea. With the waves rolling in off the North Sea four or five at a time, it took exceptional boat-handling skills to power through the breaking waves to avoid being slammed into the wall.

Rudi explains: ‘The wave sets were followed by a 2 to 3 minute lull, which allowed us time to go into the impact zone and have a good look for Andrew. Each time a new set of waves came in we had to retreat out past the surf.’

On their next approach Rudi got a glimpse of the casualty pinned against the sea wall, face down in the water. ‘It didn’t look good to be honest,’ says Rudi, ‘Although the D class can get into all sorts of nooks and crannies, I knew I couldn’t get the boat into that position.’ As the next set of waves came in Andrew disappeared from view.

The crew repeated this same difficult manoeuvre time and time again, working the boat hard, moving systematically along the shoreline, north to south. Shouting to each other to make themselves heard over the din of the engine, wind and waves, they worked as a team – Rudi controlling the boat, Adam scouring the sea behind them for signs of Andrew, and Craig keeping a vigilant look out for the next wave while running radio communications with the shore. ‘We couldn’t see the waves until seconds before they were on top of us,’ explains Rudi, ‘So we really had to be on our game.’

When their engine stalled Rudi admits: ‘It was the scariest thing. It felt like minutes, but it was only seconds.’ I screamed: “Look guys, the engine’s gone on us, we could be swimming here.” I checked we were in neutral and hit the green restart button, and luckily it just sprang into life and we were off again.’

A calculated risk

The arrival of the Sea King helicopter from RAF Leconfield proved a turning point. While the helicopter covered the area adjacent to the sea wall, the crew of the lifeboat switched to a parallel shoreline search to widen the search area. This was a calculated risk. It made them vulnerable to the incoming waves but, because they were now moving, the boat was more stable. On one of these passes, Adam picked out the glow of the casualty’s reflective belt in the water off to their port side.

Rudi realised that the quickest and safest way of getting the casualty ashore was in the lifeboat. ‘It would take all three of us to heave Andrew into the boat, but I couldn’t risk letting go of the tiller.’ With Adam and Craig clinging on to the man’s clothing, Rudi carefully steered them into calmer water. As soon as Andrew was safely onboard, Craig – a trained paramedic – began chest compressions while the lifeboat turned for home.

Once ashore, the lifeboat volunteers continued to work on him until the ambulance arrived, aided by the waiting shore crew – some of whom were close friends of Andrew. They did all they could but, sadly, he was beyond help.

‘It was the most difficult rescue I’ve been on’

Rudi Barman, Senior Helm

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

I don’t think anything can ever prepare you for a rescue like that. The fact we managed to get him made it a little bit easier for us to deal with.

It was the most difficult rescue I’ve been on. But it’s something we train for day in, day out. To be recognised with an award like this is a great honour. But it’s not just me. There are many different wheels that work in this station, down to the people who are training me and our crew over the years. It’s not a one-person thing by any means.

One message I’d be very keen to promote is just be aware of the conditions, particularly spring tides, high tides, with any swell. If you are around the shoreline maybe keep your dog on a lead. And if your dog does get into difficulty then consider calling us before jumping in to save it. Dogs are pretty tough swimmers and they can deal with the cold better than we can.

‘They did all they could to save him’

John Pearson, eyewitness and ex-Senior Helm

Photo: RNLI/Scarborough

I could see that it was a special service. On a night like that, and in that type of weather, the area around the Spa is a very unforgiving place. It was amazing they managed to find the casualty at all – it was pitch black. At one point the lifeboat was trapped behind two waves, 15ft high. The boathandling was second to none.

It was a textbook RNLI rescue. And it wasn’t just the rescue. It was the whole package – the search, the recovery and the casualty care. Back at the harbour slipway the lads took it in turns to do CPR. The crew did all they could to save him. They must have been exhausted. There’s nothing more they could have done.

‘What’s happened to Andrew has been life changing for us’

Donna Loveland, Andrew's sister

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

I was at home getting the kids ready for bed. I heard the helicopter go over my house, and I said to the kids – because you could hear the weather: 'I’m glad we’re inside.' When I think about it now, it’s a bit daft really because I must have known – partly – that it was Andrew.

Hundreds of people turned up to walk Andrew to the funeral. It was sad but it was probably the funniest funeral that anyone’s been to. I don’t know another one that’s had a face painter and a bouncy castle. Andrew was a big fan of fancy dress. One of his cousins came in a Woody costume – it had ‘Andy’ on the sole of his foot.

What’s happened to Andrew has been life changing for us. But we hope we can raise enough money to help other families – even if it’s making children aware, adults, families who come to the seaside, people who live here, anything. If people say that’s the Andrew McGeown legacy – that’s what it brought to this town – I’d love that. That’s all that we want – a better, safer place.

For his leadership, boat-handling skills and bravery, Helm Rudi Barman is awarded the RNLI’s Bronze Medal for Gallantry. An RNLI Framed Letter of Thanks from the Chairman goes to Crew Members Craig Burnett and Adam Beston, for their teamwork, courage and perseverance. Dr Peter Billingsley and Jason Hedges also receive a Letter of Appreciation from the RNLI’s Operations Director for their contribution to the resuscitation efforts ashore.

Meanwhile Andrew’s family has been instrumental in setting up a fundraising branch dedicated to making the seaside at Scarborough a safer place for everyone.

Please don’t put yourself in danger while trying to help a pet. Dial 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.

Get the RNLI’s advice on staying safe while walking your dog.