Missing paddle boarders at Old Harry spark huge rescue mission

A father and his 16 year old son are lucky to have survived after being swept miles out to sea on their paddle boards from Studland Bay in Dorset, with the teenager ending up being blown all the way to Hengistbury Head across the shipping lanes, about 10 miles away from where he started.

They were reported missing by another family member at 4.08 pm on Monday 3rd July 2023 beginning a six hour search that expanded as time ticked on.

Poole RNLi join search for paddle boarders
RNLI Poole

The light was starting to fade as lifeboats from Swanage, Poole, Yarmouth, Lymington and Mudeford contined the search

Lifeboats from five stations joined the search

The search, coordinated by HM Coastguard, eventually involved lifeboats from five stations including Swanage, two coastguard helicopters, coastguard teams from Swanage, St Albans, Poole, Lymington and Southbourne, the National Police Air Service helicopter, and teams from Dorset Police and South West Ambulance service.

The father and son were reported to have left South Beach in Studland on paddle boards at about 12.30 pm and were last seen out at sea near Old Harry at 1 pm. The alarm was raised by a family member at 4.08 pm who was becoming concerned about them when they didn’t return to shore.

Boat watch map of search for missing paddle boarders

Showing the route of the search for Swanage’s replacement 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

“Search conditions were challenging”

By 4.30 pm both Swanage lifeboats were launched and the Swanage Coastguard team alerted. The Swanage lifeboats started searching an area around Durlston Head and then across to the Training Bank at the entrance to Poole Harbour and then out as far as the Christchurch Harbour area.

Swanage lifeboat crew member Becky Mack said:

“The information from the first informant was critical, as two paddle boarders had been recovered earlier in Studland Bay, but the information received confirmed that this was a completely separate incident.

“With a description of both paddle boarders provided, a father and son, and with times of when they set off HM Coastguard was able to determine a search area and then designate search zones to different search and rescue assets.

“Although visibility was good when the search started, the sea was choppy with a fresh offshore breeze, and there was a large tide running, meaning that search conditions were challenging at times and the potential search area was vast due to how far the casualties could have travelled.”

Poole RNLi join search for paddle boarders
RNLI Poole

Each lifeboat was allocated part of the vast area of sea to search

Missing man spotted in sea by Yarmouth Lifeboat crew

By this time, Poole and Yarmouth lifeboats had joined the search. At around 7.45 pm a member of the Yarmouth lifeboat crew spotted what they believed to be an inflatable in the water, so they diverted to investigate and discovered it was one of the missing persons on their paddleboard.

Once the man was rescued and on the lifeboat, the crew began their initial casualty care assessment and it was decided to airlift him using the Lee on Solent coastguard search and rescue helicopter, from the Yarmouth lifeboat to Swanage where an ambulance was waiting.

The father, who was dehydrated and sunburnt but otherwise ok, told the crews that he had last seen his son two hours earlier and was trying to paddle to land.

This enabled the HM Coastguard to better plot the son’s possible location. The search continued into darkness when news came in that the police helicopter had spotted a paddleboard on the beach at Hengistbury Head.

Searching intensified in this area and around six hours after the initial call out, the son was found by a police team on the beach near Bournemouth Pier.

Map of route between Old Harry and Hengistbury Head

The 16 year old boy was blown out to sea from Old Harry and crossed major shipping lanes before reaching the coast about 10 miles away at Hengistbury Head. The route highlighted shows the distance along the coastline

“Powerful reminder of how quickly you can be swept out to sea”

Becky Mack added:

“Thankfully on this occasion both casualties were recovered, and bar suffering from exposure due to the length of time they were on the water, both are recovering well.

“Searching in these conditions is a powerful reminder of how quickly you can be swept out to sea and how difficult it can be to find people. If you are planning to go paddling on a paddle board, kayak or canoe there are some important things that we encourage everyone to do.

“Please always check the conditions before you launch and make sure you have the right equipment for the conditions, make sure you have a means for calling for help that you can easily reach, wear a buoyancy aid and let someone know your plans and when you expect to be back. These steps might save your life.

“The prevailing wind in Swanage and Studland is offshore and we urge anyone to be cautious going paddling when there is a strong offshore breeze.

“We’ve had another callout today (Tuesday 4th July 2023) for a kayaker who was swept off his kayak and washed out to sea in the race at Old Harry Rocks. Again, on this occasion the first informant provided vital information to help locate the person and return them safely to shore.”

Coastguard helicopter

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

Rescue timeline

Monday 3rd July 2023

  • 12.30 pm – Father and son leave South Beach in Studland on paddle boards heading towards Swanage Bay via Old Harry
  • 1 pm – Last seen at Old Harry
  • 4.08 pm – Reported missing
  • 4.24 pm – Swanage inshore lifeboat launches
  • 4.30 pm – Swanage all weather lifeboat launches
  • 4.30 pm – Swanage Coastguard are alerted along with the Lee on Solent rescue helicopter
  • 5.13 pm – Dorset Police contacted by HM Coastguard to assist in search
  • 6.30 pm – Poole lifeboats join search
  • 6.45 pm – Yarmouth lifeboat from the Isle of Wight joins search
  • 7.40 pm – Yarmouth lifeboat crew spot father in the sea on paddle board about four miles southeast of Old Harry
  • 8.30 pm – Father airlifted by coastguard rescue helicopter from Yarmouth lifeboat to King George Playing Fields in Swanage where an ambulance and paramedics are waiting
  • Around 8.30 pm – Coastguard rescue helicopter from St Athan near Cardiff takes over air search from Lee on Solent crew who return to base. Around this time the police helicopter spots a paddle board but no person on Hengistbury Beach. Local coastguard team are able to confirm that it matches the boy’s paddle board
  • 8.55 pm – Mudeford lifeboat joins search
  • Around 10 pm – Police officers spot teenage son on Bournemouth Beach by the pier. Identity is confirmed and all search teams are stood down
Coastguard helicopter taking off from King George's playing fields
Robin Brasher

The Lee on Solent coastguard helicopter heads back to base as the St Athan coastguard helicopter from Wales takes over

“Massive relief”

Swanage Coastguard station officer Ian Brown, who helped coordinate the operation, said:

“This was a very large scale multi agency incident and there was massive relief when the father was rescued and the son was found safe. They were both doing the right thing by wearing orange buoyancy jackets.

“It’s very important to invest in the right equipment, including always taking a mobile phone with you that is accessible in an emergency.

“Over the last few weeks we have seen a number of incidents involving paddle boards, sit-on and inflatable kayaks that have been blown off shore by westerly winds.

“Paddleboards and kayaks can be cheap to buy and people are needlessly putting themselves in danger by not realising how quickly they can be swept out to sea from Studland and Swanage when there are westerly winds.

“It’s very easy to be deceived by what seems like calm weather conditions on the beach. Once out in the sea and paddling away from the protection of the bay, it can take no time at all to be blown further out with no way of getting back.

“Always check the tides and the wind direction before undertaking activities at sea, take the right equipment and tell someone where you are going and when you expect to get back. In an emergency ring 999 and ask for the coastguard.”

Barfleur ferry crossing Swanage Bay

At about 8.45 pm with the rescuers still searching for the 16 year old boy, the Barfleur ferry crosses the bay, heading for Poole Harbour

“These guys were incredibly lucky”

Poole RNLI helm Steve Porter said:

“These guys were incredibly lucky – dad was found a considerable distance off the coast and needed to be airlifted. It was a huge response by all the multi agencies involved, working together and a great result. A life saved.”

Yarmouth lifeboat returning to lifeboat station

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, the man may have still been missing at sea

“This is why the RNLI was started – to save lives at sea”

Yarmouth RNLI Lifeboat mechanic Richard Pimm added:

“This is what this institution exists for. This is why the RNLI was started – to save lives at sea, and tonight alongside the coastguard and the police we did just that – we wish the two casualties a speedy recovery.”

Further information

Watch Poole RNLI searching for paddle boarders

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