How I escaped disaster on the rocks

It started out as a holiday outing to a Cornish beach. But a sudden turn of the tide put Ian Thomson and his two young children in mortal danger. He describes the hair-raising sequence of events leading to his rescue
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The Independent Online

On 18 June 2001, a rescue operation was recorded at a lifeboat station in Marazion, near Penzance, Cornwall. "The boat was launched at 13.35pm following a call that a man and two children were stranded on rocks at Piskies Cove. The wind was south-south-west force three. Visibility good. We reached the scene at 13.45pm. The man and two children - one boy, one girl, both under five - were taken off the rocks and landed at an adjacent cove into the care of a local coastguard mobile unit." The report concluded: "The man's name and address were not obtained."

Three years on, I can reveal that the man was myself. Since that summer we have returned several times to Cornwall but our holidays have been haunted by the incident. Piskies Cove, divided in two by a rocky outcrop, is small and fairly inaccessible. You have to clamber down steep rocks to reach it; at the bottom is an enchanted beach strewn with pebbles and driftwood. A long cave echoes with the roar of the surf and, occasionally, a seal lifts its head from the waves to look at you. About 100 feet above Piskies Cove, a clifftop forms part of the Cornish coastal path. The sea is an amazing Pernod-green.

That Sunday, the sun shone bright and hot, and sea-birds swooped overhead. A group of walkers appeared on the clifftop and waved to us. About noon, I dug a pit in the sand for my children to muck about in. Maud, four, and her brother Sidney, almost three, loved Piskies Cove for its gentle waves and sea-scented vegetation. That day we settled with our towels and spades on the furthest part of the beach. I sat on the sand reading, while the children jumped in and out of the pit, and overturned pebbles in the sand in search of crabs.

Earlier, people had come down the rocks to sunbathe or swim, but now they had gone and we were alone. I was enjoying the mid-morning sun and unaware of the approaching danger. The beauty of the Cornish day seemed to be spread upon Piskies Cove. Periodically I looked up to ensure that all was well. Whether the tide was coming in or going out, I was unclear. I finally realised we had a problem when my daughter's toy spade was seen bobbing out to sea. It was an incoming tide, and coming in fast.

Water was sluicing in rapidly round the rocky headland, cutting off our exit. I thought I could probably wade to safety with the children and our belongings (the sand seemed solid and level enough underfoot). But the water was rising fast and what if I slipped? Trying not to panic, I stuffed our clothes into a bag and helped the children scramble up on to the headland. I could see tiny purple plants growing on a ledge above us. The plants seemed to be above the tide-line and I thought we might be able to climb up if the water came in very high. But how long would it take for the tide to turn again? I watched the pit I had dug disappear under water. For the moment it seemed that we were stranded. Fortunately, I had a small box of raisins.

I distributed the raisins sparingly to the children. (Must keep them occupied.) We were going to be rescued by pirates, I told them. Sitting cross-legged beside me, Maud and Sidney scanned the horizon for the skull and crossbones and other signs of piratical activity. On no account should they understand the gravity of the situation. The novelty of the buccaneer game soon wore off, however, and Maud began to pick at molluscs on the rock. "I don't like it here. It's boring. Where are the pirates?" Once again I told her: "The pirates are on their way." Drowning began to seem a real possibility as the sea continued to splash against our sanctuary, throwing up spray. We had to keep moving further up the headland.

Beginning to feel desperate, I took off my shirt and waved it above my head. "Help! Help!" I shouted. Seagulls screeched above and I could see the headlines in the next day's Cornish Times: "HOLIDAY TRAGEDY AS FAMILY DROWN." Mercifully my cries for help were heard by a rambler on the clifftop, and the relief I felt on seeing him was tremendous. He indicated to me that he had a mobile phone and would call the Coastguard. "Thank God for mobiles!" I heard myself say. The Coastguard relayed the emergency call to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

Losing no time, three RNLI volunteers set out in an inshore lifeboat from Marazion station. (Lifeboatmen Simon Farrer, Jude Snoxall, Tavis Harvey, I salute you.) Meanwhile, a police rescue helicopter hovered above us to take our coordinates. In the chopper's downdraft, my daughter's hair was sucked up like a mermaid's. Presently the lifeboat came into view, bumping across the surf. As the crew steadied their craft against the rock, I lowered Maud and Sidney down to them, their faces drawn with anxiety. I was to be left behind.

One of the crew had explained to me: "There's not much room in a 16ft boat, and we need to keep it light and stable in choppy waters." Before the outboard sped off, I tried to reassure the children that I would follow presently. Stranded on the rock, I watched the foam subside, rush in, subside, as Maud and Sidney disappeared from view. Ten minutes later, the lifeboatmen returned, and I stepped down into the waiting outboard.

Meanwhile, attracted by the helicopter, a group of holiday-makers had assembled on the clifftop. Chastened and emotionally bruised by the ordeal, I was escorted uphill to dry land by two police officers. Irritatingly, gawpers milled round our path. What did they want - my autograph? My hair was matted in sea water and the paperback I had been reading earlier on the beach was soaked. It was Charles Sprawson's classic account of man's relationship to water, Haunts of the Black Masseur - really.

Ignorant of our rescue, my wife came down the path towards us. I was then being questioned by police while coastguard officers stood nearby. "Where's Maud?" Mrs T asked fearfully. She could see Sidney in my arms but our daughter was momentarily out of sight. While I tried to remember our children's dates of birth for the police, a coastguard explained to my wife what had happened. "I bet he was reading," she commented tartly. Three years have passed since the rescue, but we have not gone down to Piskies Cove again. Sadly, drownings are not uncommon along that part of the Cornish coast.

In Penzance the next day, I bought a copy of the local tide table. The booklet gave accurate tidal predictions for the year, based on the positions of the sun and moon. The table confirmed the RNLI's view that a spring tide had caused our mishap. ("Spring" in this case means "precipitate".) At certain times of the month, the moon exerts an unusually powerful gravitational pull on the water, causing it to "spring" up rapidly above its normal level.

Steve Wills, RNLI Beach Safety Manager, says such tides are easily predicted and recommends that all holiday-makers carry a copy of the table. "If you know your tides, fatalities can be averted," he says, adding: "You should also take local advice about known maritime dangers and check the weather forecast before setting out. And never go on a beach without a mobile phone. Telephone reception may still be poor in some secluded spots, but it's best to be prepared."

We had been lucky. An average of 70 beach-related drownings occur in Britain each year. People get pulled under by currents or venture out to sea beyond safety. The Chinese cocklers who drowned at Morecambe in February had been trapped on sands in a bay whose tides are notoriously swift. (Just one of the cocklers was rescued by the RNLI; 21 died.) As a precaution against fatalities, the RNLI now issue free safety leaflets urging people to stay inside beach areas patrolled by lifeguards (these are marked by red and yellow flags). "But if you do find yourself in trouble," adds Wills, "the most important thing is to try to stay calm." Rubber rings, airbeds and dinghies are among the most common causes of incidents at the beach. "The slightest breeze is enough to sweep a child out to sea on these toys - and then the child may panic, struggle and go under."

A record number of RNLI rescues - some 7,000 - occurred last year during the unusually hot summer when the beaches teemed with bathers and body boarders. In an attempt to prevent accidents at sea and on beaches, the RNLI has now installed lifeguards on 57 beaches across the south-west from Cornwall to Dorset. Prevention is not always enough, though. On 27 June last year, a four-year-old boy died after he was swept out to sea. He had been playing on rocks off the north Cornwall coast where there was no lifeguard patrol. A Royal Navy helicopter found the boy in the surf at Portheras Cove, near Land's End, after a distress call was made. The boy's mother and a woman friend were later treated for hypothermia after they had swum out in search of him.

Sea rescues have been greatly facilitated by mobile phones. Yet, according to government statistics, 49 per cent of adults do not know that the Coastguard is a 999 emergency service, like the Police or Fire Brigade. "Precious rescue time is often lost as callers hesitate over which service to ask for," says Simon Pryce, the RNLI's Divisional Inspector for the South. Moreover, hoax 999 calls are on the rise. Lifeboats and helicopters are sent out needlessly and often at great financial cost. "Hoaxers can put people's lives at risk as they divert RNLI rescue lifeboats from areas where they might genuinely be needed," explains Pryce.

Gallingly for its volunteers, the RNLI is often confused with the Coastguard. The two are distinct bodies. The Coastguard is a government-run organisation responsible for coordinating UK maritime search and rescue operations. It relies on the RNLI for the majority of life-saving missions at sea in Britain. The RNLI, by contrast, is a charity that depends on voluntary donations for its existence. Volunteers range in age from 17 to 55, and include shopkeepers, nurses, doctors and builders. Their courage and dedication to saving lives is usually unremarked on. In gratitude to them, my wife later slipped a large donation into an RNLI collection box in Penzance. "You rescued my husband and children the other day," she explained.

Immediately after the rescue I was overpowered by fatigue and ready to fall asleep on the grass when I heard a voice at my elbow: "Excuse me, were you the gentleman the RNLI rescued earlier?" (I thought: "Now what?") A middle-aged man and his wife were looking at me quizzically. "I photographed the operation with my digital camera," the man went on, "and I was wondering if you'd like to have the pictures?" Two weeks later, an envelope arrived with the promised holiday snaps. "We trust your two children are none the worse for their adventure," said the accompanying letter, "and that you enjoyed the rest of your holiday."

Thank you; we did. It had been a dicey 18 June, though.

RNLI hotline: 0800 328 0600.

Ian Thomson's 'Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti' is reissued by Vintage with a preface by JG Ballard

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