4 August 2017
Caught in a rip: The dad and daughter swept out to sea
When Ben and his daughter were pulled out to sea by a rip current, he knew he’d have to act fast to save both their lives. The only problem was: he’d have to let go of her to put his plan into action.
With a new school year looming and glorious weather forecast, a family from Ripon in North Yorkshire decided to visit Robin Hood’s Bay, a beautiful fishing village near Whitby, for a couple of days.
‘It was a last-minute trip to make the most of the summer holidays,’ explains Ben, who made the visit with his two children Grace and Peter, their mother Alannah and her partner Hugh.
On Sunday afternoon, the family made their way to the local beach to enjoy the warm weather. Ben, Grace and Hugh went to play in the sea, paddling up to their waists in the surf. The two adults kept careful watch over 11-year-old Grace, holding her hands and making sure she was between them.
‘Grace got pushed to the side, just a few feet away,’ remembers Ben. ‘I thought I’d better go get her, keep her close. But once I got to Grace, I realised the sand was washing away underneath us. We were in a rip current.’
Grace and Ben suddenly found themselves up to their shoulders in the water and had to start swimming. They tried to get back to shore but the current pushed against them, pulling them further out to sea.
Ben quickly realised they’d need help. ‘I tried to keep it low-key for Grace, so I shouted to Hugh: “Need a bit of a hand here, mate!” He tried to reach us but ended up stuck in the same situation.
‘We started calling for help but we didn’t know if anyone had heard us - you can’t hear anything with the waves crashing around you.’
The three of them were still being pulled out to sea and the situation was getting increasingly serious. Not realising he was caught in a rip current, Hugh decided to swim to shore against the current to raise the alarm, while Ben stayed with Grace.
‘Waves were crashing over us, pushing us under a bit, and Grace started to panic. She was saying: “I don’t want to die,”’ remembers Ben. ‘I tried to get her to float on her back - a lifesaving technique I remembered from many, many years ago. I think that made her panic even more, as she started to climb on top of me, which pushed me straight underneath.
‘I knew we were both getting a bit tired. I thought: “If something doesn’t change, we’re going to drown.” That was the moment of realisation. I wracked my brains for ways to get out of this - or to give the people hopefully coming to rescue us more time.’
An ingenious solution
'I happened to be wearing a short sleeved T-shirt that day,’ says Ben. ‘Remembering swimming lessons from school, I thought maybe I could trap some air in it and use it as a float. But it meant pushing Grace away from me so I could get my T-shirt off, which was the hardest thing to do.’
Ben let go of Grace and took off his T-shirt as fast as he possibly could. ‘Trying to catch a bubble and tie it up was really difficult. There was no flat water - it was all dips and troughs.’
He finally managed to catch some air in his T-shirt and gathered it up. ‘It was a grapefruit-sized bubble,’ he remembers. Then he got hold of Grace.
‘I put it behind her head while she lay on her back, doing backstroke. Grace was on wave watch: she’d let me know when a wave was coming and we’d brace ourselves. Every few waves, I’d have to let go of Grace and get more air into the shirt.’
‘This is my fight song, Take back my life song’
Grace and Ben had drifted out of the breakers and into the swells, almost a mile from shore. Ben realised how far they’d gone. ‘When I held up my hand to the cliffs, they were the size of my thumbnail. We were feeling very bleak. And I felt guilty for putting Grace in this situation.
‘All I was focused on was trying to get her through this. Everything was Grace, really. She started singing Fight Song - it was tough to hear her do that. “Just try and conserve your strength,” I told her. In hindsight, I should have let her keep singing. Every time I hear the song now, I start blubbing.’
Back on the beach, Grace’s mum and brother were distraught and frantically trying to call for help. Hugh had also reached the shore.
‘Hugh had managed to power his way back to the beach - he’s an unsung hero. It took him 20 minutes and I don’t think he could drag himself out of the water properly. He was puking and shaking,’ says Ben.
Fortunately, several people had heard their earlier cries for help and called 999. The alarm had been raised and help was on its way.
The lifeboats launch
At 5.15pm, the Coastguard requested the launch of Whitby’s inshore and all-weather lifeboats. Station Mechanic Richard Dowson was one of the crew who answered the call for help. He says: ‘When my pager went off, I was at home, pottering about in the garden. We rushed to the station and got the boats prepared for launch.’
The crew knew there were two people in the sea, shouting for help, at Robin Hood’s Bay. There was no time to lose. They launched the D class inshore lifeboat OEM Stone III first (pictured below), as it’s quicker to get underway, followed closely by the all-weather Trent class lifeboat George and Mary Webb (pictured above).
‘It took 15 to 20 minutes to steam down to Robin Hood’s Bay,’ remembers Richard. ‘When you’re on the boat and you know someone’s in the water, it feels like an age to get there.’
As the lifeboats neared Robin Hood’s Bay, the crew started to get instructions from the local Coastguard units to help them find Ben and Grace. Time was ticking. ‘These people had been in the water for some time,’ says Richard. ‘We were preparing for the worst-case scenario.’
The water became too shallow for the Trent, so the inshore lifeboat powered ahead.
With the help of the Coastguard helicopter, the lifeboat crew found Grace and Ben, at the back of the breaking surf. They were struggling to keep their heads above the water as swells reached 4m high.
The crew pulled the two casualties onboard and radioed to say they were OK. ‘We were very surprised, given the length of time they’d been in the water,’ Richard recalls.
Deciding the pair should be checked over at hospital, the crew transferred Grace and Ben to the all-weather Trent class lifeboat. ‘We brought them inside the wheelhouse and wrapped them up in coats to keep them warm. They were both walking and talking, which was very positive considering they’d been in the water for 45 minutes,’ says Richard.
The Trent headed further out to sea so Grace and Ben could be winched up into the Coastguard rescue helicopter hovering overheard. Crew Member Leah Hunter was on the all-weather lifeboat: ‘I checked them over for any injuries and helped cheer up the young girl, as she was cold and nervous about going in the helicopter.’
Watch Ben and Grace get winched into the Coastguard helicopter in the video below.
‘We’re not the heroes in this - Ben is’
The helicopter made its way to James Cook Hospital in Middlesbrough, where Ben and Grace were checked over. They were released later that day.
‘What Ben did for his daughter was unbelievable,’ says Richard. ‘It was quite a textbook rescue for us - we train for man overboard situations all the time - but he’d had no training for what he did that day. He’d remembered something he learned in his childhood and realised that if he could take his shirt off and fill it with air, he could use it to float. We’re not the heroes in this - he is.’
And what does Ben think about that?
‘Hero isn’t the right word,’ insists Ben. ‘A hero is someone who goes into the situation without worrying about themselves. Everything I did was completely selfish; it doesn’t fit my definition of hero. A survivor - that’s probably quite apt. What the crew do is heroic because they don’t have to do it. I didn’t have a choice.’
More about rip currents
Rip currents are a major cause of accidental drowning all around the world and the top environmental cause of our lifeguard incidents. People can easily get caught out by rip currents because, to an untrained eye, they can look like a calmer place to enter the water.
To help you stay safe and enjoy the beach this summer, see our step-by-step guide on how to get out of a rip current, including how to spot a rip current and what to do if you see someone in trouble in the water.
This rescue features in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.