By Mal Butler
A father-of-four who was visiting the Island over the Spring Bank Holiday has revealed how they were rescued from a West Wight beach and admitted: “We got lucky. I could have lost one or more of my children that day.”
John, 37, from Liverpool, is speaking up now to thank HM Coastguard for coming to their rescue and warning others to take care when out on the sea.
He was visiting the Island for the first time with Ethan (15), Gracie (13), Heidi (12) and Lottie (7) – and their dog – and decided to try paddleboarding on Sunday, May 30.
After ensuring they were properly kitted out with buoyancy aids, leashes and a fully-charged mobile phone they had set off from Freshwater Bay in the late morning and made their way around to Watcombe Bay before settling down for an hour or so on the beach.
But the landscape and conditions changed in that time, so subtly that none of them even noticed, until they tried to leave again.
He said: “It all seemed fine when we got to the beach and the app said we would be fine. I got distracted talking to a guy and by lunchtime when we wanted to head back, the swell was too much and the waves seemed so big. They were not the same waves we came in with.
“But we still thought we could get off the beach, I was on edge and really worried that the beach was going to get swallowed up – the app said it was going to be the highest tide of the month or something so I felt very worried; I had my kids with me.”
He said the family then repeatedly tried to get past the breaking waves, with his two older children eventually succeeding while his youngest two continued to struggle.
John continued: “My seven-year-old was really finding it tough. A massive wave came and swept my daughter off the board and right over my head – she disappeared under water for what felt like forever, before finally surfacing.
“It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. But also the moment that I realised we were out of our depth and needed help. So we decided we needed the coastguard then.”
Coastguard rescue teams from the Needles and Ventnor were sent, alongside the RNLI Lifeboats from Yarmouth, as well as the Freshwater Independent Lifeboat. Three others, an adult and two children, were also stuck on the beach alongside John’s family and in need of help.
But, because of the size of the waves, John said the lifeboats were unable to get to shore.
He added: “I tried to do everything right. I’m careful and understand why the warnings are there; we were all wearing life-jackets and I’d downloaded an app on my phone for tide times and checked them too. But I took my eye off the sea for an hour and it all changed.”
It was decided that a rope rescue would be the safest way to extract the group of eight and a dog, winching them up the cliff side and off the beach.
Andrew Woodford, deputy station officer at Ventnor coastguard rescue team, was on hand that day to help, alongside his Ventnor team and Needles coastguard colleagues.
He said that the rescue was a ‘complex technical rescue’ which utilised the full experience of the teams. Lottie was also the youngest person Andrew had ever seen recovered up a cliff in his two-decade spell as a coastguard.
He said: “To me, being available to help people and support them at the coast is what we commit to 24/7 and we train hard to ensure a professional safe rescue is always carried out.
“Rope rescue is demanding for rescue teams – it involves going to risky cliff areas, but with the high level of kit we carry we can deploy safely in rescue circumstances. It is arguably the most complex technical rescue procedure carried out by the coastguard rescue service.
“Regardless of why people are in difficulty, the fact that they are means they need people like us to bring them to safety. On this occasion it is clear the dad did everything right and shows how an early 999 call is essential to a timely response.”
John had a few final thoughts on the experience, saying: “With hindsight I should have waited for the tide to drop. But it was still the right decision to call for help in the moment; I only know the beach didn’t disappear because I saw it. “It was embarrassing though. I’m not stupid and I am careful, especially with my kids, and the teams were so good about making me feel less embarrassed. They were brilliant. They even brought up all of our belongings and the dog too.
“It was a bit scary being winched up a cliff but when we were all back at the top, I felt huge relief. If it weren’t for the coastguard and RNLI that day, it’s scary to think what decision I might have made.
“I guess it’s fair to say my first experience of paddleboarding is going to be my last.”