21 October 2016

Isles of Scilly: Retired coxswain back in rescue action as four go overboard

You never forget your RNLI training. For those in charge of our all-weather lifeboats - including present and former crew - the ability to assess a situation, stay calm and make the right call are vital. When Scilly boatman and retired lifeboat Coxswain Andy Howells saw a boat capsize with four people onboard, he knew exactly what to do.

It is 10am on Sunday 7 August. Skipper Andy Howells and his right-hand man, local wildlife expert Will Wagstaff, are welcoming passengers onboard Osprey for one of their regular sealife excursions around the Isles of Scilly. Today, there are around 20 passengers onboard. It’s high water, allowing them to get close in to see the action on the rocks. However, to keep the tide, Andy decides to set off a little earlier than usual.

Andy Howells onboard OspreyPhoto: Barefoot Photographer
Andy Howells onboard Osprey


‘We were at the top end of Tresco, making our way back round,’ recalls Andy. ‘We passed a small boat with three or four people onboard going in the opposite direction. I remember saying to Will: “I hope they don’t go any further out.” I thought no more of it.’

‘The boat had come to a standstill. It wasn’t looking good.’
Andy Howells
Skipper, Osprey

The boat was heading towards Kettle Neck, a 200m wide channel of water between Kettle Rock and the shore. On a calm day, the Neck is a convenient shortcut, but the sea here is unpredictable and dangerous. ‘It can be one of those places you don’t want to be,’ says Andy. ‘The swell was building rapidly, so I decided to go back and check.’

The boat had ground to a halt, right in the neck. ‘It looked like a big wave had already gone through because there was a lot of whitewater,’ says Andy. ‘It wasn’t looking good.’

Osprey‘s passengers watched in stunned silence as a powerful wave broke over the top of the boat, upending it and sweeping it towards the shore. ‘If you picture a really big surfer’s wave,’ recalls Andy, ‘that’s what they were in.’

Wave breaking on another day in Kettle NeckPhoto: Andy Howells
Wave breaking on another day in Kettle Neck

Race against time

‘We caned it back the way we came,' Andy continues. 'I told the passengers to look out for people in the water, any debris. We couldn’t see anything at first - there was no sign of the boat or anyone. I didn’t know if they’d managed to outrun the breaking wave. I think in my heart I knew they hadn’t.’

Passengers and crew desperately scoured the shoreline for signs of life. Two voices cried out: ‘There’s somebody on the rocks,’ followed, moments later, by: ‘There’s another!’ Then they spotted the boat - flipped over, pinned against the rocks. Two more survivors appeared: one on the rocks pointing to another about 10m from the shore.

The shoreline at Cork PorthPhoto: Andy Howells
The shoreline at Cork Porth

Plucked from the water

Andy’s first action was to radio the Coastguard. Tresco’s shore rescue team and the St Mary’s lifeboat were quickly on their way. Meanwhile Andy focussed on the man in the water, but time was running out.

‘I knew I might only have one chance to get him.’
Andy Howells
Skipper, Osprey

‘As we got nearer we could hear him shouting,’ says Andy. ‘He was complaining of feeling tired. I knew I had to go in and get him and that I might only have one chance. A minute later, he could have gone under. But I was also concerned about the safety of my passengers. I told them what I was going to do. I got some of them organised on deck - they were standing by, ready.

‘I crept in quietly, carefully. I manoeuvred in and the guys dropped the life-ring over the bow next to the casualty so he could get his arms and then his body inside. Then I slowly came astern so I could get away from the shore, and across a bit, out of the way of the breaking waves. There was a chance he could be dragged under the water as the boat moved off, so I shouted to keep his arms locked over the life-ring.

‘We pulled him away clear and got him alongside. We turned him around, got a rope through the life-ring at the back and, with a man each side, we hoiked him straight up onto the deck. The training helps, but you have to improvise in a situation like this. You’ve got to act on the moment.’

Help arrives

Andy’s RNLI training kicked in again once the casualty was safely on deck. ‘He became very ill, started to be sick. We put him in a thermal protection bag, then in the recovery position, and carefully monitored his condition.’ The passengers kept the man’s spirits up by talking to him, and offered him their hats and coats to keep him warm.

It took just 25 minutes for the lifeboat to arrive. The crew's first task was to undertake a shoreline search to make sure that everyone was accounted for. As this was happening, the casualty was transferred onto the lifeboat. Because he was at risk of secondary drowning - and it would have been difficult and dangerous to recover the others by land or sea - Coxswain Pete Hicks called for an immediate medical evacuation. All four were airlifted to hospital on the mainland, where they were treated for their injuries.

St Mary's lifeboat Coxswain Pete HicksPhoto: Barefoot Photographer
St Mary's lifeboat Coxswain Pete Hicks

While Osprey skipper Andy Howells is quick to praise the actions of his crew and passengers, he recognises that 26 years of service on St Mary’s lifeboat also played a big part. ‘My casualty care training certainly helped in that situation,’ says Andy. ‘Lifeboat crews are pretty well trained in that.’

Last word goes to one of the survivors, watching from the shore as his son was plucked from the water: ‘We would like to thank everyone involved in our rescue - they were all magnificent. Andy's commitment, skill and expertise has made a truly profound and wonderful difference to our family.’

Kettle Neck with Kettle Rock in the distancePhoto: RNLI/Robin Westcott
Kettle Neck with Kettle Rock in the distance

'I've taken part in all sorts of rescues, but nothing quite like that'

Andy Howells has been ferrying passengers between the islands, and taking them on wildlife excursions, since 1990. He was Second Coxswain at St Mary’s Lifeboat Station for 7 years, and Coxswain for 12. Family and business commitments forced him to step down in 2011.

‘The RNLI’s something I’ve done nearly all my career. I would say a fair old whack of what I did that day was down to my RNLI training. I’ve taken part in all sorts of rescues, but nothing quite like that.'

'By pulling him from the water, Andy saved the man's life'

Pete Hicks is the current coxswain at St Mary's RNLI.

'Andy’s natural curiosity saved the day. His instinct was spot on. Conditions in this area of Tresco are dangerous with a large heavy groundswell and a strong tide in the channel. He had the safety of his passengers to think about. By pulling the man from the water onto Osprey close to the shore, there’s no doubt Andy saved the man’s life. He and the three other casualties are lucky to be alive.'

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