8 August 2015

A rescue gone wrong

We love our pets. They’re part of the family. They’re our fun-loving faithfuls, our purring companions, our wagging tails to come home to. So what do you do when your four-legged friend gets into trouble in the water?

Eoin found out on 22 March. It was a beautiful day in Co Wexford, Ireland’s sunny south east, so Eoin and his girlfriend took their 2-year-old cocker spaniel Wilson out for a walk along the cliffs between Baginbun and Carnivan. No spaniel owner will be surprised to read that Wilson liked to be let off the lead. And looking into those big brown eyes, you’d think: ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’

Wilson chased a seagull right over the cliff edge, and fell. ‘It was my fault because I let him off the lead,’ Eoin remembers, with regret. The dog had crashed into a steep gulley between two tall cliffs, not far from home. Eoin, an experienced kayaker and surfer who knows the area well, reckoned he could dash home, grab his kayak, and paddle into the gulley to fetch Wilson. His girlfriend stayed put at the clifftop.

Meanwhile, at the lifeboat station ...

Fethard lifeboat Helm Hugh Burke was setting up for a Sunday afternoon training session with crew members Nicoletta Perrella and Stephen Burke. Stephen had only just got his papers welcoming him to the crew, while Nicoletta had been on the crew for a year. Not the most experienced volunteers at this long-standing station, but rigorous regular training would soon sort that out. Well, training and real-life emergency calls.

Back in the gulley, conditions were more challenging than Eoin had expected. Submerged rocks and a heavy swell, with powerful waves surging in and out between the cliff walls, made for a very unpleasant place - a stark contrast with the sunny idyll on the clifftop. But he’d come this far, and Wilson was in there. Eoin paddled into the chasm.

‘There was so much rock ...’
Eoin
Rescued by Fethard lifeboat crew

The dog was in a bad way. He had been thrown against the rocks repeatedly, and was bleeding and barely responsive, but Eoin still hoped he could get Wilson to the vet. Surfing the swells, he grabbed Wilson from the water and popped him on the bow of the kayak to take him to safety. That's when things went doubly wrong. The extra weight on the bow destabilised the kayak, and Eoin wasn’t able to prevent a capsize with the next big swell. In a matter of seconds, he, Wilson, the canoe and the paddle were at the water’s mercy.

And that water showed little mercy. Sadly, Wilson didn’t survive this second spell in the waves. Eoin had to concentrate on saving himself. ‘There was so much rock,’ he recalls. ‘My leg kind of got stuck under the rocks and the kayak washed in on me and hit me.’ Determined to get out, and with a frightened girlfriend watching on from the clifftop, he freed himself and, despite being repeatedly bashed by the kayak, managed to scramble onto a rocky ledge. ‘I knew the Fethard lifeboat was on a scheduled training exercise,’ he says, ‘so I shouted up to my girlfriend to call them, and they were with me within 10 minutes, I’d say. It was nice to see them coming.’

Fethard's D class lifeboat Tradewinds, pictured from the Waterford Coast Guard helicopter on a training exercisePhoto: RNLI/Nigel Millard
Fethard's D class lifeboat Tradewinds, pictured from the Waterford Coast Guard helicopter on a training exercise

Hugh answered the phone. ‘When we got the call, we were just getting ready at the station,’ he says. ‘From where we launch to the casualty was about a mile and a half by water. It was one of the strongest tides of the year, and the wind was going against the tide, which caused a bit of a confused sea.

‘There was constant going ahead and going astern to adjust.’
Hugh Burke
Volunteer Helm, Fethard

‘There was a 4-5-foot swell outside the gulley, and we had to go in through a number of other rocks before we could even see where he was. Knowing Eoin as I do, when I got to the mouth of the gulley I was expecting him to make his own way out. I thought he would jump in and swim out. But when I saw he couldn’t do that, I knew he was in danger.’

Hugh decided that the safest approach was to reverse the small inflatable lifeboat into the crevice, and use the surge to get in and out quickly: ‘I assessed the situation for 5 minutes and I saw a pattern of waves running into the gulley that would give us a good depth of water going in, so we came in on the back of one of those. Now we didn’t get in the whole way on one wave - there was constant going ahead and going astern to adjust. There were two large rocks at the end of gulley, which would be uncovered one minute, and then when the surge came in there’d be about 4-5 foot of water above them.

‘The kayak was surging in and out, and the paddle, and the dog, and my biggest concern was that the body of the dog would meet up with the propeller and stop the engine. But luckily enough the kayak came sideways and jammed across the gulley, so I could use the kayak then as a brake. I drove the stern of the sponson up onto the kayak and that held me in place for the few seconds I needed. At that stage there was about 3 inches of water under the skeg of the engine. Then when the water ran out again, I was able to use that surge to bring the lifeboat over to the starboard side and get in under the casualty.'

'The few seconds I needed'

‘I told Eoin to wait until we got the lifeboat under him. My crew was fending off the lifeboat, holding it on both sides to stop it hitting the rocks. I was trying to hold the lifeboat in one position, so it was constant throttle adjustment ahead and astern and I was preoccupied with that. Nicoletta was all the time watching for the next wave and telling me when the next wave was about to hit the boat. If I had taken the lifeboat out of gear it would have run out maybe 20 feet and back in 20 feet - that’s the way the surge was.’

Eoin jumps from the ledge into the lifeboat, as the crew battles the surge
Eoin jumps from the ledge into the lifeboat, as the crew battles the surge

The Coast Guard helicopter from Waterford had arrived on scene, but such was the noise of the water, and with the towering cliffs either side blocking radio signal, the lifeboat crew didn’t know it was there.

Using the surge, and with perfect timing, Hugh positioned the lifeboat just under the ledge and Eoin jumped into the boat - but they weren’t out of danger yet. ‘Another surge came back in, and we had to wait for the next one to try to get out. What we were trying to do was go out against the surge over the mouth of the gully, because that was one of the shallowest points. As the surge was coming in we would have more water to clear the rocks. And just as we got outside the gulley we had to do a 90º turn to starboard to clear some more rocks. Luck was on our side as there was a breaking wave coming in over the rocks, so we just gunned the throttle and used that wave to get clear of everything.’

‘We just gunned the throttle and used the wave to get clear.’
Hugh Burke
Volunteer Helm, Fethard

Eoin was cold, with some bruises and scrapes, a little embarrassed, and upset about Wilson, but otherwise OK. He says: ‘It was a tricky little gulley, and I wouldn’t recommend people going in after their pets. No. Not the thing to do.’

As for Stephen and Nicoletta, they had learned more that day than they’d bargained for. Hugh can’t praise them enough: ‘I’d like to say how well my crew performed on the day. It was a team effort and everybody did their job perfectly. It was their first rescue close in to rocks and I have to say the two of them did very well. Excellent.

‘The boat and engine performed brilliantly too. And as we all have 100% faith in our boats and engines, we knew they would. In my opinion the D class lifeboat was the right tool for the job on the day. I don’t think any of the other boats could have got in there - even a Y boat [a smaller inflatable daughter boat carried onboard our larger all-weather lifeboats]. It was a little bit too rough for a Y boat.’

If this can happen to Eoin, it can happen to anyone. We all love our pets and we’re always happy to rescue animals. But please don’t put yourself in danger while trying to help a pet. Dial 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.

Get RNLI advice on safe dog walking.