Whitmore Bay Rescue Debrief

First of all, apologies for the wall of text, I'd forgotten to charge the GoPro and don't have video or stills. I've had a few people ask about the details so I've put down as much as I can remember.

The original hope at the start of the weekend was to have a quick after work trip to Flat Holm on Sunday. Tides were about right for starting from Penarth, but after seeing what parking was like the fortnight before we decided that we’d go from Sully towards Lavernock, before making the glide, and do the reverse on the way home.

However, as our lovely Welsh weather was its usual unsettled self, it looked more and more like we would not be making Flat Holm, or if we did we wouldn’t be making it back. Either a short trip to Lavernock Point and back, or a longer slog up towards Barry Island was in order. Listening to Swansea Coast Guard (SCG) issue the forecast at 1700 via VHF Roly, Ross and myself confirmed the plan for Barry, with a cup of tea on the trusty Jetboil planned for the beach at Jacksons Bay when we finished the paddle into the F4-5 headwind. After the stop we’d take a quick look to see if the Nell’s Point race was up before heading home.

Once we got on there were a few waves over the sand bar to the east of Sully Island providing a quick surf. We then headed slightly out to start with to keep away from the lines of the fishermen on the eastern point of Sully, before tucking back in to make use of the last little bit of protection from the bays of the island. Once leaving these, any stopping would mean that we’d get blown back towards our departure point, even though there was still had about an hour of the outgoing tide to help us.

There’s not much more to be said about this leg of the journey, with the transit points moving past fairly slowly, and cag collars done up to stop the flying bow spray getting inside. The wind stayed around a F4-5, pushing a small swell before it. I must admit I do like this type of paddling a lot. It must remind me of the constant soaking you get on a white water river and a smile is never far from my face in these conditions. Getting closer to Barry we pulled in closer to the promontories at the far western end of Sully Bay, hoping to get a little more shelter from the wind, before paddling past the harbour walls (noticing the Pilot and RNLI boats tied up inside), through the very small surf and getting out on the beach.

After getting out, and starting to heat the water, I found that the teabags had disappeared; I still haven’t found them at the time of writing. The suggestion of having some hot water to drink instead seemed to go down like a lead balloon, but luckily we’d bought a pint of fresh milk with us, and so putting the water back into our bottles, I managed to slightly pacify my almost mutinous paddle partners with hot milk. This was received relatively well (it wasn’t thrown back in my face) and after some minutes we got ready to get back on.

The plan was still to paddle out to Nell’s Point, see if there was anything fun happening in the race yet (it was probably a bit to early on the tide), and then head back for Sully. We headed past some fishermen’s lines on the way out, and paddled out into the elements, with the wind and swell not having dropped at all during our tea/milk break. We were just passing under the NCI watchtower when we heard our VHF radios making a noise. Turning up the volume, we could here SCG asking for any boats in the vicinity of Whitmore Bay, and while Roly was responding, I noticed someone up in the watchtower looking down at us.

The next event was SCG issuing a Mayday, persons in the water at Whitmore Bay. Shouting to the other two, I started paddling hard into the wind, tide and swell, and a minute later the bay came into full view, with a knot of people in at the waters edge. As I came closer, I could see raised armsfrom this group, pointing out, and a bit later could make out a head along the transect. It seemed to disappear as I was paddling, and not due to it being out of sight behind swells. Expletives went through my mind, and I became thankful for all the Polo training I do.

I think I noticed the head disappear twice more before I got there, but for the last 30m, he was in my view fully, although it was just a face just about breaking the water as opposed to a full head. I offered up my bow to him, and arms were wrapped around my bow as two hands grabbed gratefully onto the toggle, as I told him it was okay now, that I’d got him. The full effort had taken about 5.5 minutes, covering about 0.4 miles.

Giving him a few seconds to get his breath back while I checked to see where the other two were (200m or so), I asked his name and if he was alone. Luckily for him, his name was a single syllable, Sion, and so was the ‘Yes’ to my second question. I told him I was going to paddle him back towards the beach. Almost immediately upon getting to him I’d decided that I was going to paddle backwards, keeping him in the water. I could see Sion was exhausted, and keeping him on my bow would enable me to see and talk to him. While keeping him in the water would radically increase drag, it was only 100m from the beach, and due to the surf, his body in the water would act like a sea anchor and stop me getting turned, with my being able to see the incoming waves and indicate this to him. It also meant that he wouldn’t get hit by my boat as was much more likely if he was beach side of me.

I’m pretty sure he also wouldn’t have had the strength to pull himself out completely onto my rear deck, and while I could have waited for the others to arrive to get him up there, I figured that my decisions were the ones that were going to get him out of the water quickest and in the most controlled way. With greater distances to cover with a casualty, I think I would have changed all this, but for the situation, even with hindsight, I’m pretty happy with everything, although I’m willing to discuss it.

With this all going though my mind in a few seconds, I angled out to sea and started paddling backwards, trying to keep up a conversation with the casualty, trying to get a better assessment of his condition. He looked about 16 I think, but I’m useless at guessing ages. At one point I thought Sion said he was drunk, when he slurred a sentence ending with a word that sounded like ‘drinking’. Questioning him about this, he said he'd thought he was properly drowning, but I told him no chance of that now; I couldn’t let that happen as I needed to make up for forgetting the teabags!

As I got closer to the beach, the people on the beach who were wading in water made as if to come out to us, so I shouted at them to stay there – not wanting anyone else needing to be pulled out. I also told people stay away from me until directed - not wanting them to grab the stern and pivoting the boat in the waves, or getting hit by it. Roly and Ross had also got close by this time, but there was nothing further they could add to the situation at this point, so I told them to stay away to, not wanting them to get caught by a wave and be in pushed onto Sion or myself.

At some point during all of this I’d notice the RNLI Barry Lifeboat had turned up, approaching from around Nell’s Point. I could see that they weren’t going to be able to assist with Sion, and that getting him onto the beach was still going to be the quickest option.

Once close enough, a couple of Sion’s group picked him up off me, and just keeping an eye to make sure that there were people able to take over fully I started to relax. Someone (I didn’t get his name) who seemed to be in charge of the group that Sion was in came over to shake my hand, he seemed to have slight PTS with some visible shaking as he explained that they had been training at the top of the beach and had finished their session, and some had then gone into the water to cool down. They’d all been told apparently to not go further out than knee depth, but obviously something had happened. I told him hopefully they would all have a healthy respect for the sea after this.

The lifeboat was fully on station as I paddled out, accompanied by Bristol pilot based in Barry. I went to speak to them to say that the casualty was out, to be told that they still thought that maybe someone else was in the water from the emergency call they’d received. I said that I didn’t think so from the responses I’d received, and by this point most people were walking back up the beach, but said I would go back in to check. As I did this apparently they had a call over the radio to say it was all clear, but I missed this, but it wasn’t a problem as I caught a nice wave in.

After all this, the paddling got a whole lot easier until back at Sully. The trip back round Nell’s Point and back to Sully consisted of a lot of surfing the following sea. I can find these legs more tiring than the original slog up into the wind – all the extra acceleration to catch that next wave means you never take it as easy as you plan. Similarly on the outward leg you are prepared for the long paddle against the elements.

Once back at Sully the waves got a little bigger as the tide had started pushing round the island and the causeway was still uncovered. I caught a nice surf though one of the outer reefs, and Ross and Roly looked like they’d had some fun further outside. As we rounded the island and paddled the 300m back to the get in, the wind came once again at our faces, and we were pretty glad that we didn’t have to paddle into that for any further than the bay.

Luckily, I’d somehow just about managed to compensate for the fact that I’d lost the teabags.

On a serious note, responding to the Mayday, I don't think I did anything here that anyone reading this wouldn't have tried to do. I've tried to put down my thought processes for the decisions I made, and hope it helps others if they encounter similar situations.

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