Floating for survival

Two girls are caught in a rip current outside of the lifeguarded patrol area. As they’re dragged further out to sea, how will the lifeguards hear their calls for help?
Lifeguard training on a rescue watercraft in rough weather

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

It’s the start of the summer holidays and almost the end of another busy day for RNLI lifeguards on Sunderland’s twin beaches at Seaburn and Roker.

A call comes in from the Coastguard. Someone has reported two distressed girls in the water. 

‘I thought it might be a hoax or a false alarm at first. We’d had a few hoax calls that day,’ says Senior Lifeguard Adam Blenkinsop. ‘But you always have to assume that someone out there desperately needs your help, and act fast. And there’s always added pressure when such young people are in trouble.’ 

Senior Lifeguard Andy Brown gets the search and rescue operation immediately underway. Lifeguards Kieron Barraclough, Joe Pomfret and Tom Hughes are tasked with searching the area. The girls are reported to have been seen offshore from Whitburn Beach – north of the lifeguards’ patrol area.

RNLI Sunderland D class lifeboat

Photo: Sunderland RNLI

Jumping through the surf, Joe dives into the water and swims as fast as he can in the reported direction, Kieron paddles as hard as he can on his rescue board, and Tom runs across the sand alongside them carrying a trauma bag. 

A breakthrough 

When there’s no initial sign of the two girls, Andy calls the Coastguard for more details while the lifeguards continue searching. But then there’s a breakthrough. Speaking to people on the beach, Tom learns one of the girls is safe. He finds her on the beach with her aunt after the member of the public who called for help managed to rescue her. 

‘The person who helped one of the girls should be commended,’ reflects Adam. They did the right thing calling the Coastguard, but they also put their own life at risk. Remember, if you see someone in trouble in the water, call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.’ 

All hands on deck 

With her friend still in grave danger out at sea, the search and rescue operation steps up a level. Andy enlists the help of lifeguards at neighbouring Roker Beach where the rescue watercraft is based. Simultaneously, the Coastguard requests the launch of Sunderland’s D class inshore lifeboat Myjo

When Adam and fellow Senior Lifeguard Sam Surtees arrive on the rescue watercraft, Sam transfers to the lifeboat to make space for Adam to take Lifeguard Joe back to shore.

Having been swimming for some time now in the search, Joe is beginning to feel the effects of the cold temperatures. 

Seaburn and Roker RNLI Lifeguard Team

Photo: Seaburn and Roker RNLI Lifeguard Team

The Seaburn and Roker Beach lifeguards involved in the rescue: (l–r) Andy, Tom, Joe, Kieron, Adam and Sam

Survival skills 

From the beach Andy spots something in the water through his binoculars. It looks like a young girl – and it looks like she’s floating. Adam’s back now on his rescue watercraft. He goes to investigate and as he gets closer, he can hear the girl’s cries for help. 

It's a clear, sunny day, but the waves have picked up throughout the day, building to almost 1m. This makes it difficult for Adam to spot the girl, even though she's nearby. 

When he reaches her, sure enough she is floating on her back, trying to stay as calm as possible to keep her head above water. She's 11 years old. By this time, she’d been in the water for around 12 minutes. 

‘She was exhausted and very distressed, but very happy and relieved to see me,’ says Adam. ‘She did very well to float. I can only guess that she learned it from one of the RNLI’s Float to Live adverts, from one of our school and educational talks that we give in the local area or from a Swim Safe session.’ 

The lifeboat crew drop Sam off in the water. Together, Sam and Adam help the girl onto the rescue watercraft. Once ashore, the lifeguard team assess the 11-year-old before both girls are transferred to the care of the paramedics.

Two Hazardous Area Response Teams and a double-crewed ambulance from the North East Ambulance Service are assisting in the major operation. Both girls are checked over at the scene and the 11-year-old girl is taken to Sunderland Royal Hospital as a precaution. 

Float to Live 

RNLI Lifeguard Supervisor Sandy Kerr praises everyone involved in the multi-agency rescue and reflects that the girl’s floating skills played a big role: ‘The girl was obviously well educated on what to do if she got into difficulty in the water. If she hadn’t followed the RNLI’s Float to Live advice, the outcome of the rescue could have been very different.’ 

Floating is a skill you and your family can practise in the pool this winter. Get some tips on how to teach a child to float by watching our short video.

'Remember to float to live'

Adam Blenkinsop

Photo: RNLI/Andrew Choumandis

Senior Lifeguard Adam Blenkinsop

Adam Blenkinsop, Senior Lifeguard at Sunderland, says: ‘If you get caught in a rip current, don’t try to swim against it – you’ll get exhausted. Swim parallel to the shore until you’re free of the rip. Raise your hand and shout for help. And remember Float to Live – float on your back if you need to at any time to rest and regain your energy.’

Get more tips on floating from our Respect the Water pages.

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