19 January 2018

Tombstoner at Flamborough cliffs

After a dare from his mates, a man jumped from the cliff top into the sea at North Landing, near Flamborough. He cleared the rocks at the base of the cliff. He landed in deep water, thanks to the high tide.

It turned out that getting down was the easy part; getting back out proved trickier.

In a mass of confused seas at the bottom of the cliff, and in a swell of 1.5m, he couldn’t swim to the shore. He struggled to reach the cliff to climb out. Undercurrents and backwash hampered his progress.

Time to call 999 and ask for the Coastguard

Thankfully, one of the group at the top of the cliff did have the sense to call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

Helm Stuart Cross had been planning a surfing session that afternoon, to make the most of the big surf. When he got paged and heard there was a man in the water at North Landing, he knew it was serious: ‘An urgency came to us all. North Landing was facing into the swell coming from the north. We needed to get to him as quick as we could.’

Crew Member Tom Moate was already at the station, kitted up and getting the inshore lifeboat Elizabeth Jane Palmer ready to go. The Lifeboat Operations Manager Captain David Freeman gave Stuart a briefing as the helm got changed. They decided to just go with the next two crew members who turned up, without delay – Rob Mitchell and Andria Donnison.

The
crew at Flamborough (l to r) Stuart Cross, Andria Donnison, Rob Mitchell and
Tom MoatePhoto: RNLI/Flamborough
The crew at Flamborough (l to r) Stuart Cross, Andria Donnison, Rob Mitchell and Tom Moate

All hands on deck for cliff rescue

They launched within 8-9 minutes of being paged. Help was also on its way in the form of the Coastguard rescue helicopter based at Humberside and the Bridlington Coastguard Rescue Team.

‘As we launched and headed up to North Landing - we call it “goin’ roun’ t’corner” - we had swells with the boat. On the left we could see waves breaking. It was an early indication of what we could expect. It does get your heart beating. We thought the man was still in water at that point.’

Helm Stuart Cross has a personal reason to be wary of North Landing. His ancestors were among those fishermen who drowned there in the Flamborough disaster of 1909.

The
Coastguard watches from land and air as the speck of Flamborough lifeboat nears
the tombstoner at the base of the cliffPhoto: RNLI/Flamborough
The Coastguard watches from land and air as the speck of Flamborough lifeboat nears the tombstoner at the base of the cliff

The scene at North Landing

Just before the lifeboat crew reached the scene, 4.5 miles from the station, they were informed that the man was out of the water, lodged in a small cave up a cliff. The cliff rescue team guided them into the bay, over the VHF radio.

‘We needed to get to him as quick as we could.’
Stuart Cross
Helm, Flamborough RNLI

Stuart assessed what he saw: ‘He’d been in the water a good 10 minutes. We believe he’d jumped in off the cliff top, tombstoning, dressed in football kit and socks. He’d fallen around 20m into confused seas. The water was about 12-13°C at best and there was a fresh northerly wind. He’d managed to scrabble out of the water. Now he was stuck in the entrance to the cave, metres above the surging waterline. He had a few cuts to his legs.’

‘At one point we thought he was going to jump in from the cave,’ recalls Stuart. 'If he had done, he could have been swept in against the rocks and in a position that we couldn’t have got with a boat.’ From the lifeboat, Crew Member Tom gave the man clear hand signals to stay where he was.

Once the helicopter crew arrived, they decided it would be unsafe to drop the winchman down. Stuart cuts to the chase: ‘The cliff’s vertical with a hole in it. There was no foot holding.’

It was down to the Flamborough crew to save him.

The rescue manoeuvre at the cliff base

Stuart and the crew knew the area well. They approached using the deep channel in the bay, anchored at the side of the channel and veered down (reversing) towards the cliff.

‘We didn't want to hang around longer than we needed to.’
Stuart Cross
Helm, Flamborough RNLI

‘It was a matter of timing it right,’ remembers Stuart. ‘We had to watch the swells, but I was confident it was deep enough to power out of there with both engines if needs be.

‘It took us a few attempts. At one point we had to pull right back because we saw a swell running.’

On the next attempt, the lifeboat got in closer and a swell lifted them to the base of cliff. Over the noise of the helicopter they shouted to the man and helped him into the lifeboat. They powered out to deep water. ‘We decided to cut anchor as didn’t want to hang around longer than we needed to.’

The man was really pleased to see them. He fully admitted it was a stupid dare that had gone disastrously wrong. Not something he would be repeating.

The
view from the lifeboat’s camera as the tombstoner is about to jump to safety at
base of 35m cliffPhoto: RNLI/Flamborough
The view from the lifeboat’s camera as the tombstoner is about to jump to safety at base of 35m cliff

Back on dry land

Due to the swell at North Landing beach, the crew took the man back to the calmer South Landing. On the way, the crew kept him warm and checked he didn’t have any serious injuries.

Stuart praises the crew: ‘They were 100%, like a well-oiled machine. We have confidence in the equipment and we train regularly. Tom is going to be a paramedic, so he knew what to do, covering him up, asking questions, keeping him comfortable.’

Despite missing out on an afternoon’s surfing, Stuart was pleased everyone was home safe.

Back at the station, he was met by a station volunteer who used to be a crew member in the days of Oakley class lifeboats. ‘It was a rewarding moment to be praised by an older crew member - he shook my hand and said it was a “job well done”.’

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