4 September 2017

Hunstanton tides cut family adventure short

Twins Molly and Daisy are making the most of the last of the summer holidays. On a gloriously sunny September day they are playing on the beach when they catch sight of some strange shapes on the horizon. Like any self-respecting 12-year-olds, they’re eager to get a closer look.

As they approach - with older sibling Zoe and her boyfriend Nickie in tow - the mystery objects slowly metamorphose into the barnacle-encrusted remains of a shipwreck, languishing half-buried in the sand.

Trapped by the tide

When you’re exploring the site of an ancient wreck, it’s easy to lose track of time. The area around Scolt Head Island consists of mudflats and sandbanks which dry out extensively at low tide. Other than the narrow channel flowing through Brancaster Harbour, the whole area can appear to be one unbroken expanse of sand. As the tide flows back in however, the landscape can change dramatically. When the four explorers look up, what they see is water, not sand. The sandbank on which they’re standing is disappearing rapidly on the incoming spring tide.

Recognising the danger, Nickie, Zoe and the two girls instinctively make for the shore. But they soon get out of their depth. While clinging on to each other, they somehow manage to swim out to a channel marker buoy and grab hold of it.

The call goes out

Harbour entrance buoy number 10 marks the edge of Brancaster Harbour’s deepwater channel. It provides a temporary sanctuary, but it’s not designed to hold on to. The water in the channel is fast-moving and, as the four struggle to keep hold of the buoy, their weight starts to drag the buoy under the water.

In desperation, Nickie decides to cross the tidal stream to get help. It’s risky and it means leaving Molly, Daisy and Zoe behind at the mercy of the incoming tide.

When their pagers go off, Commander Tim Richardson and his crew of Michael Darby, Vic Dade and David Peppercorn drop everything to answer the call. As they hurry down to Hunstanton Lifeboat Station to prepare to launch the station’s inshore rescue hovercraft Hunstanton Flyer, they are expecting a fairly routine type of rescue.

Commander Tim Richardson – now retired from RNLI dutiesPhoto: Pete Naylor
Commander Tim Richardson – now retired from RNLI duties

It takes them just 20 minutes to cover the 8 miles to Brancaster Beach. It would normally take 15 but today they’re heading into a slight breeze. As they get underway the Coastguard radios to say there are four people in the water. ‘That’s when we realised the seriousness of it,’ recalls Commander Tim.

Swept away

As Hunstanton Flyer approaches the marker buoy, more drama unfolds. The tidal stream that has been prising the sisters away from the buoy eventually overpowers them. Daisy watches in horror, as Zoe and Molly let go of the buoy and float away. She desperately tries to hang on - terrified, distraught and screaming for her sisters. Nickie, who’s made it back safely, and is badly shaken, can only watch helplessly from the shore.

‘Getting separated is the worst thing that can happen in this situation,’ says Tim, who realises straight away that Zoe and Molly are in the greatest danger and need rescuing first. As they pass the marker buoy, Crew Member Mike Darby jumps into the water and swims over to Daisy. Satisfied that Daisy is safe for now, Tim, Vic and Dave go off in pursuit of Zoe and Molly. Hunstanton’s inshore lifeboat is standing by, so Tim knows he has back-up if he needs it.

Inshore rescue hovercraft Hunstanton FlyerPhoto: Clifford Hicks
Inshore rescue hovercraft Hunstanton Flyer

As driver Vic manoeuvres the hovercraft skilfully alongside Molly, Tim and Dave grab hold of her and lift her clear of the water. Next it’s Zoe’s turn, but it takes the crew longer because Zoe is completely exhausted from the effort of holding her younger sister afloat for 20 minutes or more. ‘All credit to her. She was absolutely spent,’ recalls Tim. ‘Like a rag doll’. Just as they're getting Zoe onboard, the hovercraft is already turning to go back for Daisy and Mike.

‘It was the hardest swim of my life, without a doubt.’
Michael Darby
Senior Helm, Hunstanton RNLI

Mike is holding onto Daisy and reassuring her. He inflates his lifejacket to keep both their heads above water. But by now they too are drifting away from the buoy.

‘I had to swim about 15 feet against the tide, wearing all my kit, including steel toe capped boots and drysuit,’ he recalls afterwards. ‘My heart was in my mouth. It was the hardest swim of my life, without a doubt. With the tide running at 3-4 knots, I was thrashing as hard as I could. I was so shattered, I couldn’t get back onto the hovercraft right away.’

With the three sisters onboard the crew rush them to shore. They assess the casualties, wrapping them up in blankets to keep them warm, while they wait for the ambulance to arrive. Other than being traumatised from their ordeal the girls are OK, and later make a full recovery.

Senior Helm Mike DarbyPhoto: Pete Naylor
Senior Helm Mike Darby

Reflecting on the rescue, Mike says: ‘After we got the girls out and we watched the video, we realised how close this had been. Another couple of minutes and it could have been a very different story.’

‘The beach here is as safe as any other,’ says Tim. 'You just need to read the safety guidelines on the beach and be aware of the tide.’

Have fun, stay safe

The school summer holidays may be over but it doesn’t mean an end of trips to the seaside. You can have fun at the coast at any time of year. But as this rescue and other similar ones show, the sea can be dangerous and unpredictable.

For a safe trip to the beach this autumn read our safety tips. And before you head out check the tide times so you can plan your day. When you’re at the beach, don’t forget to look out for local warning signs and heed the safety advice.

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.