29 August 2017

No way out: Trapped down a cliff on a cold winter’s night

When keen hiker Sally set out to walk 9 miles of the South West Coast path from Minehead to Porlock, she never reached her destination. Her disappearance sparked a 17-hour search and rescue mission involving the Coastguard, Exmoor Search and Rescue, the police, and eventually both Minehead lifeboats. Here’s the story of her rescue and miraculous survival.

It’s Saturday 17 December 2016 and with just a week to go until Christmas, Minehead Lifeboat Station volunteers are enjoying Christmas dinner at their local pub.

The hum of a coastguard rescue helicopter flying overhead catches their attention. With a designated lifeboat crew ready to leave the party at a moment’s notice, some of the crew members go to speak with coastguard officers to see what’s happening.

They learn a 69-year-old woman, Sally, is missing. She was last seen walking on a remote coastal stretch of Exmoor at around 5pm. Emergency services are scouring the moors and cliffs, and with it being a land-based search and rescue operation, the crew are told the lifeboats are not required at that time.

The sea search begins

The next morning, the dedicated Minehead volunteers are up bright and early for a crew training session at the station when, at around 9am, their pagers go off.

There’s been no trace of Sally overnight and so the search has been extended to the sea. The Coastguard requests the launch of both inshore lifeboats.

‘My thoughts at that point were that we were looking for someone who possibly wasn’t going to be alive,’ says Minehead Helm Phil Sanderson. ‘It was just before Christmas and it had been a cold night.’

Minehead Helm Phil Sanderson
Minehead Helm Phil Sanderson

The crew’s plan of action is to take the bigger and faster B class lifeboat straight to Hurlstone Point to have a look along the shore and then work back to Minehead, while the D class crew conducted a more thorough search closer to shore from Minehead towards Hurlstone Point. They’d meet in the middle and swap sides.

‘We reached Hurlstone Point within about 10 minutes,’ Phil recalls, who was helm of the B class lifeboat that day. ‘We were looking back at the shore from Minehead and as soon we came round the corner to Hurlstone Point, we could see the lady trapped on the cliffside just above the water and outside the entrance to a cave.

‘We were relieved to see she was alive but a little bit gobsmacked. We thought: “What on earth is she doing there and how did she get there?” We knew she’d been walking on the coast path up above but it’s quite a long way up.

‘She was very lucky. She wasn’t easy to spot because her green parka was roughly the same colour as the rocks. And if you’re by that cave, you can only be seen from the sea. Nobody on land would’ve been able to spot her. Even if you stand on the cliff above, you still can’t see down into the cave. A passing fishing boat may have spotted her waving but that would’ve been pretty unlikely.

‘The cave is actually a favourite haunt of ours. We use it as a training area and have practised rescues there loads of times but never thought we’d actually do one there because it’s such a difficult place to get to.’

The rescue

Sally isn’t out of danger yet though.

‘There was a real risk of her falling into the water,’ Phil explains. ‘The tide was coming in and there was a big swell rolling into the cave. The tide is ever so strong round there and you can’t swim against it. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have survived had she fallen in before we arrived.’

But Phil has another dilemma. The conditions are too rough for the B class lifeboat to enter the narrow rocky entrance of the cave safely.

‘Sally was obviously really pleased to see us. She was responding well to us so I was happy to wait 5 minutes for the smaller D class lifeboat to arrive just to make the operation a lot safer. We told her what has happening and to stay where she was.’

When the D class crew arrives, Crew Member Matt Legg is transferred onboard to assist them. ‘They needed some extra weight in the boat and an extra pair of hands to hold the lifeboat steady and then push it off the rocks,’ says Phil.

Despite the D class being a smaller and more agile lifeboat, it still requires great skill by Helm Paul Arnold to negotiate the hidden dangers and manoeuvre the lifeboat just inside the cave to reach Sally.

Crew Members Richard Gay and Matt Legg grab onto the rocks to help keep the lifeboat close and steady as Crew Member Harry Mouzouri climbs onto them to lift Sally into the lifeboat.

‘There was quite a bit of swell coming up and down the mouth of the cave and we didn’t want to get stuck in that,’ Harry recalls. ‘I remember thinking to myself: “I hope we don’t hit any submerged rocks because if the prop [propeller] is damaged, a cave isn’t the best place to be without a working engine.”

‘Sally was in a pretty dangerous position. She was dazed and weak. The lifeboat was moving around from side to side and wasn’t quite level against the rocks. We didn’t want her to fall between the boat and the rocks because that’s the worst place to be. So I just picked her up and gave her to Rich.’

Relief all round

Once safely onboard the D class lifeboat, Sally is then transferred to the faster B class lifeboat and taken to Minehead Lifeboat Station.

On their way back, Crew Member Andy Escott assesses and monitors Sally’s condition. He puts a survivor’s lifejacket on her and a polythene sheet around her to help keep her warm and shield her from the wind.

‘She was really happy that she’d been rescued,’ Phil says. ‘She kept saying: “Thank you very much.”

‘For somebody who’d been out all night long and taken a bang to the head, she was surprisingly fit and well. We were impressed with her resilience – it was quite remarkable.’

The doctor’s assessment

Upon arrival at Minehead Lifeboat Station, Sally is checked over by GP and Lifeboat Operations Manager Dr John Higgie before being transferred over to the care of the paramedics.

‘Sally was cold and she was weak and wobbly, but otherwise OK,’ says John. ‘She was able to walk by herself but was obviously very tired having been out all night.

‘To be where she was on the rocks, she must’ve slipped down the cliff and she was obviously shaken up from that. She had a nasty graze on her head but hadn’t suffered a significant injury.

‘She was very lucky she had a very good parka with a warm hood which kept her warm. If she’d been found much later, she would’ve had problems with hypothermia because she was significantly cold. I’m glad to say she warmed up in the crew room and didn’t need anything else other than being in a warm place and traditional cups of tea. But if it had been a frosty night or if she’d been out there longer, then things may have been very different.’

Minehead B and D class lifeboatsPhoto: Nicholas Leach
Minehead B and D class lifeboats

Home for Christmas

‘It was a challenging rescue for the D class crew particularly,’ Phil summises, ’but it was one we’d trained for. And practise makes it so much easier. Everybody knew what to do because we’d done it lots of time before.’

‘It was a bit of a precarious moment,’ says Rich, ‘but you don’t think about it. You’re just doing your job. You’re working as a team and that’s what we do.’

‘It’s such a great feeling to bring somebody back,’ says Phil. ‘We spend a lot of time searching for things that aren’t there where somebody’s reported something with good intent and so often go back to the station empty-handed. So it’s really nice to rescue someone and bring them back. You think: “Well, that was a big difference we made there.”’

‘Once you’ve saved a life, it’s a little bit infectious,’ adds Harry. ‘You want to make sure that you’re on the boat to potentially save another life. It makes you feel pretty proud.’

So how did Sally end up down the cliff - and how did she survive the night?

While walking along the clifftop path, Sally lost her footing, fell down the cliff and onto the rocks below. And with no mobile coverage in the area, she couldn’t even call for help.

Recalling that terrifying night, Sally says: ‘There were a couple of times when I thought: “I could die here.”

‘My biggest fear was the cold. I thought: “If I fall asleep in the cold then that’s it - I don’t think I’ll wake up.”

‘I thought every minute I’m here in the dark is a minute closer to the daylight. I had to think positively and look ahead to survive.

‘I was confused. My body was tingling inside - it felt very strange. But when I saw the lifeboat, it was just wonderful. I think they were pleased to see me too!

‘I’m very grateful to them. And I hope I never need them again. To think they’re volunteers and have other jobs as well, I think they’re marvellous.’

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.