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Behind the scenes - the story of one rescue

by Nancy Knudsen on 17 Mar 2013
Refused help, ran aground - photo by The Argus SW
What happens behind the scenes during the rescue of sailors and their sailing boats mostly remains unknown - the difficulties of the rescuers are considered hardly newsworthy compared with the real and present danger of those in trouble. That maybe true, but the efforts and bravery of the rescuers need acknowledging, such as in this story recorded by a spokesman for the rescuers - on the south coast of Britain.

The drama started on Friday morning when the Eastbourne (East Sussex) all-weather lifeboat was launched at the request of Dover Coastguard when it was apparent that a lone sailor was in difficulties nearby.

Dover Coastguard was monitoring erratic radio communications from the 38ft steel vessel, which had drifted dangerously close inshore, and requested the volunteer RNLI crew to investigate.

The lifeboat came alongside, but the yacht’s skipper initially refused to make contact with the lifeboat crew. Whilst the all weather lifeboat stood by, negotiations took place between coastguard officers and the skipper which eventually resulted in the lifeboat being stood down, the skipper abjectly refusing all offers of assistance.

Coastguard officers monitored the slow progress of the yacht against wind and tide throughout the day and were becoming increasingly concerned for the safety of the vessel and its occupant.

At 8.05pm in atrocious weather conditions with driving rain and gale force winds (Force 7 gusting Force 8) a ‘Mayday’ distress call was received by Dover coastguard from the yacht which had now run aground on the beach below South Cliff Tower. No information was given in the Mayday call, merely 'Mayday'.

Eastbourne all-weather lifeboat was scrambled and under way within a few minutes of the request to launch. Guided to the location by red distress flares fired from the yacht, the lifeboat was soon on scene. What they found was the yacht, now dismasted and 'beached' on a rocky ledge. Not knowing what would be found at the scene, a helicopter had also been launched and the land-based Coastguard rescue team.

Due to the weather conditions and the condition of the tide the lifeboat was unable to get close to the stricken yacht. It was ascertained that there was a lone sailor onboard the vessel who was in his sixties. Lifeboat coxswain Mark Sawyer suggested the coastguard rescue helicopter might therefore potentially pluck the yachtsman from his doomed vessel should the opportunity arise. However at this time he was nowhere in sight.

It was time for the land-based Coastguard rescue team to try. They made an attempt to wade out to the vessel but had to turn back as the conditions were extremely difficult. In the meantime the incoming tide was making its own decisions. It lifted the yacht off the rocky ledge and moved it closer inland, the sailor still on board.

The Coastguard rescue team made a second attempt to wade out to the vessel. This time they were successful and they climbed aboard the vessel where they found the sailor in the cabin, where there was a strong smell of gas.

The team managed to get the man out of the cabin and back to shore, where he was handed over to the ambulance services and the police. By the time the sailor was on his way to hospital, 12 hours had elapsed from the time of the first alarm.

Frank O’Neill, Watch Manager, Dover Coastguard said, 'This was a challenging situation for the rescue units, due to difficult weather conditions. The coastguard rescue team putting their water rescue training and equipment to good use were able to rescue this man from his predicament and get him to a place of safety.'
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