2 December 2014

Lost and found

When the tide’s right, you can take a small boat from Salcombe, Devon, right up the Kingsbridge Estuary and dine by the waterside at the Crabshell Inn.

That’s what Kay Langdale and her family had planned for the evening of 30 October. But as supper time approached, Kay’s 17-year-old son Noah had not returned home from his evening fishing trip in the family's 3m RIB. And the fog was closing in.

Kay and Noah in their home overlooking the sea
Kay and Noah in their home overlooking the sea

‘By 7pm I started to get anxious, and by 7.30pm I was quite worried,' Kay recalls. 'My husband Hamish said he would go down to Fore Street and check if the boat was there.’ Hamish found that the boat was not on her mooring, and Noah’s bike was still chained to the railings where he’d left it to check his crab pot. The worried parents raised the alarm.

Kay, a novelist, told her story in a series of tweets the following day:

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The crew’s side of the story

It was the night before Halloween. Just a regular Thursday evening in Salcombe, and the RNLI volunteers were going about their everyday lives.

Richard Clayton and Esther McLarty had gone out for dinner at the Kings Arms. They ordered their food and – beep – off went the pagers. Richard says: ‘We gathered our belongings and rushed out of the restaurant, telling the bemused owner that we had a lifeboat shout, so please cancel our order.’

Donna Collins and Suzy Pile, shore crew volunteers, were at Suzy’s house cooking dinner and carving pumpkins in their pyjamas. They headed straight for the station when they were paged – PJs and all.

Crew Member Matt Davies describes the conditions: ‘The fog had started to roll in at about 5pm and, by the time the lifeboats were launched, visibility was down to less than a boat length, which is 16m on the Tamar class all-weather lifeboat Baltic Exchange III. There was a very light wind.’

Salcombe lifeboat crew volunteers say thank you to the public for the support and donations that keep them trained and ready to rescue.
Salcombe lifeboat crew volunteers say thank you to the public for the support and donations that keep them trained and ready to rescue.

Coxswain Chris Winzar takes up the story: ‘Brixham Coastguard initially requested the launch of the Atlantic 75 inshore lifeboat Joan Bate. As Joan Bate lacks radar, and due to the conditions, I decided that there was no way that she could carry out a thorough search alone, and that both lifeboats were required.’ They launched just after 8.30pm.

‘He was at risk of being run down by another vessel, such as a fishing boat.’
Andrew Arthur
Volunteer Launching Authority, Salcombe RNLI

‘The normal crew for the Tamar class lifeboat is seven,’ Chris continues. ‘However, with benign sea conditions, extra eyes and ears for a search was considered prudent, so we took an extra crew member, Esther, who's a doctor.

‘From the explanation given by the casualty’s father, we knew the rough area, but visibility was very poor. Using local knowledge of tidal streams and wind conditions, we determined the search area.’

The all-weather lifeboat began searching from Limebury Point towards Prawle Point, while the inshore lifeboat searched both sides of the harbour entrance. The crews used everything they had to search through the fog: bright parachute flares, radar, night-vision equipment. Just after the crew on the larger Tamar class lifeboat had sent up their second illuminating flare, they heard someone shouting. It was Noah.

The boy was very relieved and pleased to see the lifeboat, having been powerless and alone in the foggy dark for more than 3 hours. Volunteer Andrew Arthur says: ‘Having deployed his anchor, he had stopped drifting and was not in danger of running ashore on the rocks. He was at risk, though, of being run down by another vessel, such as a fishing boat. And had the search not found him so quickly, over time he would have got very cold and hypothermia would have set in.’

Matt continues: ‘Due to our weekly regime of training exercises, the crew onboard were at ease with using the equipment and using various search patterns.’ A proud but understated Coxswain Winzar concludes: ‘As you would expect, a very successful outcome carried out by a capable volunteer crew.’

Engine failure in thick fog: an unfortunate set of circumstances that led to a scary situation. Andrew has this advice: 'Before setting out, check the weather forecast. If fog can be seen to be forming, do not go to sea. Before going out to sea in any circumstances, always check all your safety equipment and means of communication.'

Lifeboat crew prefer blondies

Kay says she used Twitter to thank the crew for returning Noah because 'Twitter's like throwing a pebble into the middle of a lake, and your message ripples out and reaches people that you wouldn't even dream of'.

But she also wanted to give the crew a more personal thank you. She and Noah returned to the station the following evening, with hearts full of gratitude - and a big box full of homemade Peanut Butter and Chocolate Button Blondies (like brownies, but made with white chocolate).

Kay says: 'I thought they could sit and eat them with their tea at their crew meeting. Who doesn't love a cake?'

The last word's on Salcombe's Twitter account:

RNLI crew training made all the difference during Noah's rescue. Contributions from a generous public keep RNLI lifeboat crews trained and ready to save lives, at Christmas and all year round. Can you help train lifeboat crews by making a donation?