Man who tried to paddle board to Old Harry with son, tells of ordeal

A 45 year old man from Bristol has spoken for the first time of his near death experience after spending nearly seven hours clinging to his paddle board in Studland Bay while drifting across the shipping lanes towards Bournemouth in Dorset.

The rescue mission to find Tomasz Oleksik and his 16 year old son, who had intended to paddle board from Studland Bay over to the nearby rocks at Old Harry, sparked a huge multi-agency response from the emergency services including the launch of seven RNLI lifeboats.

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Poole RNLi join search for paddle boarders
RNLI Poole

Poole Lifeboat crew join in the search

Strong offshore winds

The incident began on Monday 3rd July 2023, when the family on holiday in Purbeck, visited South Beach in Studland.

Tomasz and his son launched their paddle boards at about 12.30 pm, while Tomasz’s wife Lucy waited on the beach.

They had planned the route they would take from Studland Bay to Old Harry before checking into their campsite.

At the time there were strong offshore winds but in the calm sheltered waters of Studland Bay, the family did not realise the potential danger of being swept out to sea.

Tomasz and son
RNLI

Tomasz Oleksik (left) and his 16 year old son set off from South Beach unaware of the drama that was about to unfold

“I had no chance – I felt so small”

Tomasz said:

“The weather was perfect when we started; it was sunny, the water was calm. But I quickly lost sight of the beach and I realised how strong the currents were. I could feel something was wrong.

“Then the wind started, and then the waves. That’s when I lost control – it was the first time I had felt how strong nature is. I had no chance – I felt so small.”

He quickly lost sight of his son and was unable to get back onto his board. He was kept afloat only by his buoyancy aid.

Tomasz added:

“If I hadn’t been wearing a buoyancy aid, I wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes.”

Although he had taken a mobile phone with him, it was in his bag which sank when he fell into the water.

Poole RNLi join search for paddle boarders
RNLI Poole

Seven lifeboats from five stations scoured the sea for the paddle boarders as the light began to fade

Emergency call to the coastguard

Back on the beach it was now around 4 pm and Lucy was beginning to worry about where her husband and son had got to.

She started walking along the beach and tried to see if she could spot them. After asking three passing young women for help, they advised her to call 999 and ask for the coastguard.

Following Lucy’s call, a search was initiated and both Swanage Lifeboats were launched coordinated by HM Coastguard.

Scale of the rescue mission increased

As time continued and there was still no sign of the father and his son, the scale of the rescue mission increased.

As well as RNLI volunteers from Swanage, Poole, Yarmouth, Lymington and Mudeford RNLI, there were HM Coastguard helicopters from Lee-on-the-Solent and St Athan.

Coastguard rescue teams from Lymington, Poole, Southbourne, St Albans and Swanage joined in the search, along with a National Police Air Service helicopter. Dorset Police and the South Western Ambulance Service were also mobilised.

With so many emergency services teams involved, the RNLI has released details of this rescue ahead of 999 day, a national day of recognition for the emergency services across England and Wales on Saturday 8th September 2023.

Boat watch map of search for missing paddle boarders
Boatwatch

Showing the route of the search for Swanage’s temporary all weather lifeboat 13-12. It first searched along the coastline around Old Harry and then out to Durlston Head, before turning back towards Bournemouth

Swanage coastguard looked after wife Lucy

While the search continued, Lucy was looked after by one of the Swanage coastguard team, Steve Westwood and his wife Ann. Steve said:

“She needed reassurance, so we kept saying, ‘We’re going to keep searching for as long as we can’.”

And Lucy recalled how the Westwoods helped to keep her spirits up by reminding her that it was a full moon so that would give the crews a bit more light for the search.

Tomasz fell asleep from exhaustion

However the light was starting to fade and Tomasz was still floating out in the sea. He said:

“I started to worry because I saw the sun set. I thought, ‘If they don’t find me before it gets dark, how will I survive?’”

Eventually, exhausted from fighting the waves, Tomasz fell asleep resting his head on his board.

At around 7.40 pm, he was awoken by the sound of a helicopter overhead. Yarmouth RNLI lifeboat was on the scene minutes later, locating him four miles east of Old Harry Rocks.

Tomasz was so tired from his ordeal that he could barely lift his arms, but he described the moment of complete relief when he knew the lifeboat crew had seen him:

“I saw someone wave back, and I knew they were coming to get me.”

“I’ve learnt the biggest lesson of my life. I want people to know my story, because not everyone understands what can happen on the ocean. This is major. This is not the lake, this is not the swimming pool, this is the ocean.

“I want to tell every paddle boarder: check the weather, check the tides, and wear a buoyancy aid. This is so important.”

Tomasz was airlifted from the sea to King George’s Playing Fields in Swanage where an ambulance and paramedics were waiting to treat him.

Yarmouth lifeboat returning to lifeboat station
RNLI / HEBE GREGORY

The Yarmouth Lifeboat eventually returned to its station on the Isle of Wight at about 11 pm with crew members knowing that if it hadn’t been for them, Tomasz may have still been missing at sea

“Jumping around the front room laughing and crying”

The search continued for Tomasz’s son but fortunately around 10 pm he was told that his son had been found by police on the beach in Bournemouth.

He had managed to get himself to shore at Hengistbury Head, five miles from where his father was found.

Coastguard Steve Westwood said:

‘The joy on our faces when we knew everyone was alive, Lucy was jumping around the front room laughing and crying.

“This was a situation that escalated quite quickly, so much time had passed while they were out there. We had been thinking the worst. We’re so glad it was a positive ending.’

Coastguard helicopter in search for paddleboarders
Coastguard helicopter

With Tomasz on board, the Lee on Solent coastguard helicopter brings him to paramedics waiting at King George Playing Fields in Swanage

“Really important to check the forecast and tide times”

Samantha Hughes, of the RNLI’s water safety team said:

“We want paddlers to have fun and to stay safe when heading out onto the water.

“Weather conditions, particularly offshore winds and strong tidal currents can make it more difficult or even impossible to return to the shore, so it is really important to check the forecast and tide times before you head out.

“Remember to wear a well-fitted buoyancy aid or personal floatation device as this will help you float if you end up in the water unexpectedly. Always carry a means of calling for help such as a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch.

“In the event of an emergency at the coast call 999 and ask for the coastguard and if you’re inland ask for the fire and rescue service.”

Watch Poole Lifeboat search

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