by Julian Patrick
Posted on the Community Forum: 17 Aug 2004 13:02 Post subject: Eight minutes into the trip-we called the lifeboat
Ever wondered what it felt like to actually launch those flares? Well I had to yesterday just eight minutes after setting off from Treadurr Bay, North Wales. Here's a brief account of the story. I have posted this as it is a reminder of why we actually should carry safety kit on the sea - on any trip...
I was out with two guys who wanted to demo the new Rockhopper kayak - I had only ever paddled with them the day before and although their paddling skills were not advanced they were both fit strong lads not far short of 4-star standard. I was leading the trip. The previous day we had completed one trip (Moelfre to Porth Eilian for those who know the area) in smooth seas. The previous afternoon we had also undertaken various rescue techniques (them rescuing each other/me and me rescuing them).
Today was slightly different – superb sunny weather again but the wind was a force four and there was quite a bit more chop. We planned to paddle from Treaddur Bay to Rhoscolyn - reasonably committing but bearing in mind their fitness, paddling levels and observations of the previous day I felt happy to go with it. One was ex-Navy, the other still with the Navy and both had strong diving backgrounds.
About seven or eight minutes into the trip and we were about to leave the safety of the bay and head into more open sea when one of the guys spotted a dive marker. We veered left and gave it a wide berth. Then we heard a distant but distinct and croaky "help.....help.....help". At first I could see nothing but then spotted a neoprene covered head in the water. It was a diver and I paddled swiftly over to him. As I approached I could see him disappearing under the water and then surfacing again. He had no mask on and no mouth-piece. As I pulled alongside he went under and I had to reach down and grab his shoulder straps to pull his head above the water. I realised that there was a possibility of him panicking and capsizing me (but then again what can you do but go for it?) and I instructed him to grab onto my boat - which he did with some vigour. I was ready for this and had to let go of him to brace hard on the opposite side...he just slid under the water again (eyes staring and mouth open). I reached into the water where I could see his dark shape and grabbed a handful of clothing and grabbed him again, trying to edge the kayak to offset the weight on the other side. He grabbed the boat again, looked right into my eyes and very quietly he said, "help me".
I had my right hand on my paddle, my left holding a strap on the diver’s kit and was edging the boat hard to offset the diver’s weight. I asked one of the other paddlers (Andrew) to raft up on the opposite side to the diver - which he did; this took about two minutes as Andrew was doing his best to move the kayak sideways- I swear he nearly went over – and I told him in no uncertain terms that this was not the time to go for a swim. Eventually Andrew leaned across my boat, braced his elbows and gripped the diver firmly by the lapels. Andrew took charge - proceeding to calm and reassure the guy (I was extremely impressed – Andy was very calm, not forgetting to give his own name and ask the diver for his). The diver was obviously not in a happy state and although he managed to provide his name he was not in a position to hold any kind of a conversation.
This suddenly left me free to think what to do next. We were drifting in small swells towards the rocks but I reckoned we had a good twenty minutes before it would be an issue. I looked at the guy again - blue lips said it all - this was serious. The guy appeared to be in shock, was fast shallow breathing and we had to assume that he would have swallowed a lot of water. He also appeared to be drifting in and out of conciousness. A quick check with Andy and we were agreed - this was no time to delay. It was a good job that Andy was a very fit guy – he would be able to hang onto this guy (with full dive kit/weights/bottles) – but for how long? I pulled out my VHF, switched it on and....
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Three kayakers, Treadurr Bay. Immediate assistance required", or something to that affect.
I let go of the “Press To Talk” button.
Nothing - absolute zilch.
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Three kayakers, Treadurr Bay. Over"
I passed the VHF across to Peter who was close by ready to assist.
“You know how to use a VHF?”
He did and I passed it to him with the instruction to keep on trying.
I pulled out my mobile phone. It’s a funny thing being in a stressful situation – for a good five or six seconds I just stared at the screen – its one of those colour screen phones where you can see sod all in daylight and even less when looking at the screen through a waterproof case. I couldn’t see whether we had reception and I was struggling to remember how to switch the “phone lock” off (yet I use it ten times or more a day!!). I worked it out and dialled 999. Nothing. No reception whatsoever. I was tempted to throw it into the water.
During this time Andy was examining the casualties dive equipment – the idea to pump air into his flotation equipment. Andy reported that there was no air to be had – not even enough for this task (I am not a diver so will not attempt to say more on this).
Another diver surfaced and Pete paddled over to explain the situation. The other diver swam over to his mate. The second diver suggested we hang on for a moment – maybe his pal had just panicked and would be okay shortly. We discussed this for less than half a minute but I mentioned that he had probably swallowed water (secondary drowning possibility), I had seen him repeatedly sink below the water with his mouth wide open and that his lips were without doubt turning a darker shade of blue as we spoke.
A rib passed by about 100M away, heading slightly away from us. Pete suggested using my whistle. I did so and Pete and I waved our arms above our heads. We could see faces looking in our direction but the boat didn’t alter course and was soon gone from sight. We could also see fisherman on the rocks (again about 100M away) and half a dozen people on the headland - obviously watching three kayakers not going anywhere.
I pulled my mini flares from my buoyancy aid and hoped to hell that they would do “exactly what it says on the box”. I pulled the small launcher from the side and inserted it neatly into the first cartridge, extracting the cartridge from the unit. I did actually remember at all times not to point it at any of the guys around me – this came fairly naturally for some reason. I held it up in the air, pulled the small trigger and let it go. Well…. it certainly worked and an extremely loud explosion launched a red ball of fire about 150 ft. into the air. I fired a second off towards Treaddur Bay and a third I aimed at the headland – let’s make sure that the small group on the cliffs know that we are not messing around here! I fired a fourth for good luck (probably overkill but there are eight in the container and when the adrenaline is pumping!).
Within a minute or so two ribs were heading our way from Porth Diana. One of the ribs pulled up alongside (the front of the boat actually climbing over my decklines and chinning me in the face). I looked across to my left. Pete was out his boat and swimming!
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I did it on purpose - I’m an ex-Navy dive master and I’m going to swim up behind the guy and help get him in the rib.”
All this time Andy was talking to the Diver. Don’t worry, everything is fine, helps on the way. Open your eyes for me. Don’t go to sleep. Your in good hands now…” Andy and Pete were discussing whether they could extract him from his kit in the water.
I checked how close we were to the rocks – not a problem – a good fifty or so metres yet.
Pete swam around behind the diver, grasped him from behind and instructed Andy to release him. He swam the guy, on his back the two metres or so to the edge of the rib where the diver was grabbed by a guy in the rib. Between them they tried to get the guy into the rib. It wasn’t going to be easy if it was possible at all.
I looked over my left shoulder towards Treaddur Bay and to my relief the RNLI rib swept into view – the cavalry had arrived and were soon alongside.
“Let’s get him in here guys – we’ve got oxygen on board.”
It took four experienced guys less than a minute to get him into the RNLI rib. One of the RNLI guys checked that everybody else was okay.
“Everybody else okay – you in the water (Pete), you okay?”
“Fine,” said Pete. “We’ll sort ourselves out.”
And off they went.
Whilst the diver was being hauled into the lifeboat I had rescued and emptied Pete’s boat and soon he was safely back in. Andy had Pete’s paddles (picked up by a sea kayaker who had investigated the flares – I think I know who it was but was not concentrating at this point! – thanks anyway). We saw the yellow helicopter fly overhead. I noticed at this stage that a large crowd had gathered on the clifftops and I could hear a siren from the Treaddur Bay direction.
We paddled into Porth Diana for a much needed calming down session and were immediately met by a number of divers with many questions. Ten minutes later a representative from the Coastgaurd arrived and thanked us for our efforts. He told us that the diver had been flown by helicopter to a decompression chamber at Liverpool (the chopper had landed on the football field next to Treaddur Bay lifeboat station – apparently a football match was stopped to allow it to land).
I also had a shock. Apparently the coastguard heard all of our VHF transmissions and had received a running commentary of the whole incident (I believe they could even hear when we were not using “press to talk”). Apparently I had inadvertently hit the “lock” button and this meant they could hear everything but we could not hear their replies. I hope there was not too many swear words.
I am only reporting this after today finding out that the diver is okay and was sent home after his visit to the hospital.
The rest of our trip went as planned and Rhoscolyn Beacon was as beautiful as ever. Pete was pissed off because he lost a Merrell sandal (£50 they were! Fifty bloody quid!) and I need some new flares. Andy’s forearms had a good workout.
Lessons learned or reinforced:
1. Safety equipment is not just for you and your party and you might need it
in even the best of conditions. No VHF or flares on this trip would have meant
a much longer delay in obtaining assistance – even though we were only
just outside of Treaddur Bay.
2. If you get any new kit (especially something with many buttons like a phone or radio) make sure you know it inside out and practice using it in what might be deemed emergency situations (careful with the radio if “practising” and practice with flares only on bonfire night).
3. Mobile phones – reception cannot be relied upon.
4. Arriving at an emergency with no safety kit – you would feel pretty useless and powerless.
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