Courage in a chaotic sea: A kayaking family’s tale
It was a warm but dull April day with calm seas – perfect for kayaking. The Heylings family from Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester, were spending the Easter holidays in their holiday home in Trearddur Bay, Anglesey – a place they’d enjoyed for the past 8 years.
Julie, her 17-year-old daughter Megan and Megan’s two friends Rachel and Katie paddled to Smileys Lagoon, a bay they knew well, in their two inflatable kayaks.
Being experienced kayakers, the four were enjoying the water near some rocks a mere 200m from shore when suddenly, Megan and Rachel’s kayak capsized.
A ‘chaotic’ sea
‘The sea had a chaotic half hour,’ recalls Julie. ‘A large wave came out of nowhere, lifted Megan and Rachel’s kayak right up and crashed it down horrifically on top of the rocks.’
Rachel was very lucky. Bruised but uninjured, she managed to climb higher up on the rocks to safety. But Megan was in serious danger. Unable to move, breaking waves pummelled her against the rocks. Luckily the kayak was within reach and she held it as a shield to protect herself against the force of the sea.
Knowing her life was in danger, Megan managed to drag herself out of the water but was in too much pain to reach the higher rocks. With an incoming tide, she was soon being buffeted by waves again and desperately needed help if she was to survive.
‘It was horrific to see’
Seeing her daughter’s life in danger, at the mercy of the unpredictable sea, was agonising for Julie. ‘It was horrific to see. The swell was so bad I couldn’t reach them,’ she says. ‘I knew I couldn’t rescue them myself and had to seek help.’
Keeping the girls within their field of vision and yelling to check they were OK, Julie and Katie paddled to an area where they knew they should get a mobile signal. Julie called Malcolm Campbell, a friend at the RNLI, who subsequently called the Coastguard. (If you see someone in trouble in the water, immediately call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.)
‘I’m a father myself so when I knew teenagers were involved, the urgency of the shout stepped up a notch,’ says Trearddur Bay Helm Daf [Dafydd] Griffiths. ‘That and the fact that one of the girls had suspected spinal injuries in a flooding tide.’
The breaking waves on the rocks made it very difficult to get the lifeboat close enough for Crew Members Tom Kearney and Sion Owen to jump off and climb ashore. Positioning its bow into the rocks, it took great skill and all of Daf’s might to hold the lifeboat as steady as he could.
With sea conditions deteriorating on the rising tide, it was also extremely challenging for the crew on the rocks. They managed to reach Rachel and helped her back across the rocks and into the lifeboat.
A perilous transfer
Due to Megan’s suspected spinal injuries, Crew Member Steve Williams was also put ashore with a stretcher. The rocks Megan was lying on were even more treacherous as they were getting covered by the swell.
The three lifeboat volunteers worked together to get Megan safely onto the stretcher, knowing that any false move could have life-changing consequences for her. The sea conditions made the task incredibly difficult and, being unable to move, Megan couldn’t assist the crew in any way. She was also extremely cold by this time – hypothermia had set in.
Once she was safely secured onto the stretcher, and with the Coastguard rescue helicopter on standby, the lifeboat crew began the perilous transfer of Megan over the rocks and into the lifeboat.
‘A couple more minutes and we could have lost her to hypothermia,’ says Julie. ‘I was more worried about the spinal injury and didn’t realise hypothermia was the bigger threat.’
‘Megan was very lucky’, says Tom. ‘The outcome could’ve been very different if we hadn’t got there when we did.’
Megan’s body temperature was stabilised at the lifeboat station before she was transferred into the care of the paramedics and taken to Ysbyty Gwynedd Hospital in Bangor by ambulance.
X-rays found Megan had bad bruising to her spine and crush injuries to her leg but thankfully no breaks. She had to have physio for 10 weeks.
‘I couldn’t have managed without them’
‘Megan’s friends Rachel and Katie were amazing. I’m so proud of them,’ says Julie. ‘They remained calm and focused during the crisis and were so supportive afterwards. I couldn’t have managed without them. They were incredible.’
‘It was such a relief getting the girls back to shore safely,’ says Daf. ‘I was very thankful to my crew. They were excellent and displayed outstanding teamwork. They carried out a textbook operation quickly and in extremely difficult conditions.’
A miraculous recovery
Within weeks of her ordeal, Megan’s fighting spirit came to the fore once again when she completed her Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award - a personal challenge that involved walking 50 miles over rough terrain in the Lake District.
‘We’re very proud of Megan,’ says Julie. ‘She will get to go to the palace after all!’
Seconding Julie, Daf says: ‘All the crew are very proud of Megan. I felt as if we’d made a real difference that day and this just goes to prove it. Just unbelievable!’
And since Megan’s accident, Julie’s dad and Megan’s grandad Malcolm Proudlock, a renowned trout angler, has discovered another passion – fundraising!
Malcolm wrote the following Facebook post just days after Megan’s accident:
‘I would like to thank the RNLI from Trearddur Bay for saving my granddaughter’s life last week, when she was caught in her kayak by a freak wave. I take my hat off to them for the great job they do. I will be forever grateful. They got together with the team yesterday to thank them in person.’
Malcolm received some amazing responses, one of which was from fellow trout angler Anthony Meadows, who chose the RNLI as the beneficiary for his annual charity fishing event in Anglesey. The auction donations were so successful that Malcolm and Anthony organised two more RNLI fishing fundraisers - The Malcolm Proudlock Cup at Sweethope and the Charity Day at Chatton.
Thanks to the generosity of all the anglers who took part in the events, a total of £5,003.60 was raised for Trearddur Bay RNLI.
Megan, Julie, Malcolm and Anthony took great pride in presenting the cheque to the station’s volunteers on 2 August.
‘This is a phenomenal amount of money,’ says Daf. ‘We’re always so very grateful when people raise money for the RNLI, especially when it’s in personal recognition of a difference we’ve been able to make to someone and their family. But it’s certainly not something we expect from those we rescue.
‘Their generosity, and the generosity of people like you, provides the lifeboats, kit and training that we rely on to save lives at sea. And if it wasn’t for that support, we wouldn’t have been there that day to save Megan and Rachel. It doesn’t bear thinking about.’
‘It’s great to be able to give something back’
‘Out of an awful accident came something good,’ says Julie. ‘These fishing fundraisers for the RNLI will continue each year. In addition, my husband Mark completed the Sandman Triathlon at Newborough in Anglesey in September, raising a further £550, and counting, for the RNLI!
‘We were lucky, and it’s great to be able to give something back.’
The sea can be unpredictable and catch even the most experienced of water users out, as Julie, Megan, Rachel and Katie discovered. They were all wearing buoyancy aids, had a means of calling for help within reach and were familiar with the area. There was nothing more they could’ve done.
The RNLI’s top three tips for safe paddling are:
- Plan your trip - check the weather, tides and any anomalies in the area
- Wear a suitable buoyancy aid
- Always carry a means of calling for help, such as a VHF radio or a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch, and keep it on you, within reach, at all times.
See our dedicated kayaking and canoeing pages for more safety advice.