12 May 2017

Beating the odds: Kayaker survives fall into a cold sea

Lifeboat Helm Patsy O’Mahony is relaxing at home on a Sunday afternoon in February when his phone rings. It’s his friend Olan. There’s a man in the sea with a kayak, struggling to swim back to shore. Patsy hangs up and immediately alerts the lifeboat operations manager at Youghal Lifeboat Station.

At around the same time, Billy Farrell from the local Coast Guard station is driving along the coast road. Out of the corner of his eye he spots an object in the sea off Redbarn Beach. He pulls over for a closer look. Realising there’s someone in trouble, Billy raises the alarm.

Responding to their crew pagers, lifeboat volunteers John Griffin, Eddie Hennessy and Martin Morris drop everything and rush to the lifeboat station, where Patsy joins them. Conditions are favourable - a calm sea beneath a brisk force 2-3 north-westerly wind - but time is not on their side.

It takes just 8 minutes for Tractor Driver Mark Nolan and the rest of the shore crew to get the lifeboat into the water - a near-perfect launch. The lifeboat reaches the casualty 4 minutes later.

Youghal coastline from the sea. The lighthouse to the left marks the entrance to the harbour on the right, where the kayaker fell into the water. He then drifted about a mile out to sea.Photo: RNLI/Derry Walsh
Youghal coastline from the sea. The lighthouse to the left marks the entrance to the harbour on the right, where the kayaker fell into the water. He then drifted about a mile out to sea.

Drifting offshore

Patsy skilfully brings Youghal’s B class Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat Gordon and Phil alongside. ‘It was only when we got there that I realised how serious things were,’ he recalls. ‘The man was in the water, clinging to his kayak. The falling tide, combined with an offshore wind, had pushed him out to sea. I estimate he’d fallen in near the harbour entrance and drifted about a mile offshore. He’d been in the water for up to 45 minutes.’

‘Without a wetsuit in winter you’re unlikely to survive more than a few minutes’
Patsy O'Mahony
Lifeboat Helm, Youghal RNLI

It was a minor miracle the man was still alive. The temperature of the sea off the Irish coast at this time of year is 9°C - enough for cold water shock to steal the air from your lungs and leave you helpless. ‘I’m a kayaker myself and I know these waters well,' reflects Patsy. ‘Without a wetsuit in winter you’re unlikely to survive more than a few minutes.'

‘As we approached the casualty, I could see him turn round,' Patsy explains. 'I knew from my training on the lifeboat and as a diver that we had to be careful. Given how long the man had been in the water and his age, there was a significant risk of a heart attack.

‘It was very important we kept his legs up while getting him out of the water. This was to avoid the blood rushing down to his legs starving his vital organs of oxygen.

‘Martin and Eddie brought his legs up and rolled him over the sponson [one of two inflatable tubes that run down each side of the lifeboat]. He was quite alert at that stage. He waved at us and he responded to our questions.’

With the casualty safely onboard, the crew were able to do a proper assessment. ‘He wasn’t in great shape,’ admits Patsy. ‘He was showing signs of hypothermia. Our priority was to get him on oxygen and back to the station where we could warm him up.

'We began first aid, reassured him and made him as comfortable as we could. We hugged him and put a neoprene hood over his head to keep him warm - the hood is something we carry on the boat for situations just like this.’

Deteriorating quickly

Other volunteer crew and shore crew were getting ready with blankets and a stretcher to carry the casualty the 150m from the beach to the boathouse. Recovery of the lifeboat was secondary at this stage.

‘He was so relieved to be out of the water; the fight was out of him’
Patsy O'Mahony
Lifeboat Helm, Youghal RNLI

Patsy explains: ‘Putting the lifeboat back onto the trolley would have tied up the shore crew and wasted valuable time. We beached her instead, got her right in, gently, touching her on the stones. It was well controlled.

‘We stripped the casualty of his clothes, wrapped him in blankets and got him on oxygen. His condition had deteriorated. He was conscious but he was shaking violently. He seemed to be giving up, you know. He was so relieved to be out of the water; the fight was out of him.

‘In training we try to make our scenarios as realistic as possible. But things are different when you have an actual casualty in the water. You need a level head. You’ve got to stay calm. The crew performed brilliantly.’

Although the casualty had a means of calling for help he wasn’t carrying it with him at the time. ‘It was a sit-on kayak and he had a mobile phone in one of the hatches,’ says Crew Member Eddie Hennessy, who helped pull the casualty out of the water. ‘He reached for it and lost his balance, ending up in the water. He just wasn’t able to get himself back on.’

Unable to open the hatch because his fingers were so cold, the casualty had spent the first 15 minutes crying out for help. ‘He was quite calm when we got to him,' says Patsy. 'He’d gone into a calm place, given up, accepted his fate.

‘My lifeboat crew did a great job. But the casualty care was where the real lifesaving was done on this rescue. It was a team effort - the whole team was outstanding. When someone comes back alive you realise the importance of what you’re doing as a volunteer.’

Left to right: Crew Members Martin Morris, John Griffin
Junior, Eddie Hennessy and Helm Patsy O’MahonyPhoto: RNLI/John Griffin Senior
Left to right: Crew Members Martin Morris, John Griffin Junior, Eddie Hennessy and Helm Patsy O’Mahony

'I have no words to describe how thankful I am'

It took the casualty - who had been on holiday with his wife at the time of the accident - 3 days in hospital to recover. The following week he returned to Youghal to thank his rescuers personally and give them this letter:

The letter reads: 'I have no words to describe how thankful I am to you all. The outcome could have been so different only for ye. Thanks again.'

Kayaking safety advice

Sadly not all kayaking accidents end so well. Youghal’s Lifeboat Operations Manager Derry Walsh says: ‘We would encourage everyone taking to the sea to respect the water. Always carry a means of calling for help and keep it within reach.

‘Before you set out, check the weather and tides. Wear a personal flotation device in case you fall into the water. Make sure you tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. And wear appropriate clothing for the conditions and your trip.’

For more safety advice on kayaking and canoeing and enjoying the coast safely, see our water safety pages.

Photo: RNLI/Andy Lyons