Paddleboarder pulled from clutches of death

A lone paddleboarder hits gale-force winds and ends up in the icy water. A team of rescuers, on land, sea and air start a desperate search.
Dun Laoghaire crew

Photo: RNLI/Dun Laoghaire

The crew at Dun Laoghaire. Top row, left to right: Gary Hayes, Rory Bolton, Paul Cummins, PJ Gallagher. Bottom row, left to right: Kieran O'Connell, Eamon O'Leary, Conor Totterdell.

Mid-winter in Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin. 

On 27 January 2019, Coxswain Eamon O’Leary was heading down to the shore for a Sunday stroll with his wife Mary when his pager sounded.

He raced to Dun Laoghaire Lifeboat Station and learned that a paddleboarder was in trouble between Bray Head and Greystones, being pushed out to sea. It was a job for the all-weather lifeboat. ‘We knew it was very urgent,’ recalls Eamon.

Duty Mechanic Rory Bolton soon had the powerful engines rumbling, Alan Kevelle set up the navigation equipment and remaining crew Gary Hayes, Paul Cummins, Conor Totterdell and PJ Gallagher prepared the lifeboat for a rapid response. 

‘There was no delay, we had a crew straight away. We just went.’

The Dun Laoghaire crew on the Anna Livia

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Dun Laoghaire crew onboard the Trent class Anna Livia

The paddleboarder had set off early when it was calm, but the wind had picked up from the north-west and the sea was now very rough. When he realised he couldn’t make it back to shore, he called for help immediately.

Dun Laoghaire crew launched at 12.20pm and joined the Wicklow lifeboat, Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116 and Greystone’s Coast Guard Shore Unit in the search.

Ominously, they had heard nothing from the paddleboarder since before midday. He wasn’t answering his phone.

The brains behind the Dun Laoghaire search

With the rough conditions, Eamon knew that finding the paddleboarder would by a challenge. The experienced second coxswain took in all the available information from the Coast Guard and the search units already on scene. Taking account of factors like wind speed and direction, tidal rate and the time elapsed time, Eamon estimated the casualty's location.

Dun Laoghaire Second Coxswain Eamon O’Leary

Photo: RNLI/David Branigan

Second Coxswain Eamon O’Leary – in charge of the Dun Laoghaire search and rescue

The Coast Guard and the RNLI kept up close communications. They all knew the paddleboarder would be very hard to spot, low down in the water in choppy seas. 

Eamon reflects on the force 7/8 conditions: ‘That’s not a lot for a lifeboat; it is for a person in the water. We’ve got 100% confidence in the boats and kit that the public fund for us. Weather-wise, there’s nothing we wouldn’t go out in.’ 

Early on in the search

Once they were off the town of Bray, the Dun Laoghaire crew reduced their speed to 15 knots and strained to spot the casualty in the rough water. 

They headed south, 2 miles east of Greystones, and were just about to turn to port. 

‘Portside!’ shouted Crew Member Paul Cummins from the flying bridge, having spotted the casualty. 

Eamon took control of the lifeboat from the upper wheelhouse and manoeuvred towards the man.

Dun Laoghaire crew on the Trent class Anna Livia

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Keeping a sharp lookout on the Dun Laoghaire Trent class lifeboat

The casualty was indeed in the water, leashed to – but not on – his board. Eamon remembers: ‘You could see he was in a bad way. The water was sweeping across his face.’ His buoyancy aid was helping to keep him afloat.

The rescue part of search and rescue

39 minutes after launching, Dun Laoghaire crew quickly informed the Coast Guard that they’d found the casualty. Then they got on with a difficult but rapid recovery.

The crew had gathered in the well deck, ready to grab him. Time was of the essence. ‘I wouldn’t say he had long to live,’ says Eamon. Together, the crew cut the leash and dragged him up into the lifeboat. 

The casualty was seriously hypothermic and had taken in water. The crew described him as: ‘in a bad way … semi-conscious … couldn’t talk … maintaining own airway… in need of urgent medical attention’.

Dun Laoghaire Trent class Anna Livia

Photo: Nicholas Leach

Ready for anything – the crew have faith in their lifeboat and each other

The casualty needed to get to hospital fast, so Eamon arranged for an urgent transfer from the lifeboat to Coast Guard helicopter.

With great teamwork, and in difficult conditions, the stretchered casualty was winched up to the helicopter. Wicklow lifeboat crew recovered the paddle board and stood by as the casualty was airlifted.

Looking back on the rescue

The crew were pleased to hear that the casualty was making good progress in his recovery. 

Eamon’s down-to-earth about his role in the rescue – the skilled planning of the search and strong seamanship. ‘I just happened to be the coxswain on that day. Only one search element can find a target, it happened to be us. Being part of a rescue mission isn’t about being a soloist, it’s about being part of an orchestra’.  

He’s more emotional when he reflects on what the crew achieved that day: ‘Back at the station, surrounded by the team, I could feel tears in my eyes. They were great that day, absolutely wonderful. Without any one of them doing their job so well, there could have been a different outcome. They all came together as one to save a man’s life.

At the debrief, one crew member remarked: 'If I never did another thing in the lifeboat, today makes all the training worthwhile.’ 

Tips for safe paddleboarding

The paddleboarder in this rescue helped himself by having a means of calling for help in a waterproof bag. And he called for help early, which gave the rescuers a chance of finding him in time. He also wore a wet suit and buoyancy aid, which helped keep him afloat. 

If you’re planning to go paddleboarding, follow these tips to stay safe:

  • If you can, always go with a friend. They can help you if you get into difficulty.
  • If you are going out alone, always tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back. 
  • Take a mobile phone or communication device and keep it in a waterproof pouch.
  • Check the weather forecast and tide times before you set out. Be aware, the conditions can change quickly. Avoid offshore winds. 
  • Wear a suitable personal flotation device – a buoyancy aid or a lifejacket. 
  • Wear suitable clothing for the time of year. 
  • Always use a paddleboard with a leash. 
  • Get some training. Get the technique right, so it’s more stand-up and less fall-in paddleboarding!

If you enjoyed reading about our crew in Dun Laoghaire, perhaps you’d like to become an RNLI member? You’ll be powering our lifesaving service, supporting our courageous volunteers and you’ll receive a copy of Lifeboat magazine, packed with rescue stories and lifestyle features, including news and events in your local area. 

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