TV star backs RNLI campaign after terrifying ordeal at Durdle Door

BAFTA winning actress Joanna Scanlan has backed the RNLI’s Float To Live campaign after speaking publicly for the first time about how she nearly drowned while swimming at Durdle Door in Dorset.

Joanna, who plays Ma Larkin opposite Bradley Walsh in ITV’s popular comedy drama The Larkins, has been an accomplished swimmer since childhood, but still found herself in serious trouble off the Jurassic Coast on her honeymoon.

Durdle Door

A tourist honeypot – but Durdle Door has hidden dangers

Supported RNLI for many years

With August Bank Holiday weekend expected to bring a last summer surge of visitors to Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, Joanna has shared her scary experience to remind everyone how unpredictable and dangerous the sea can be, at any time of the year.

She grew up on the coast and has supported the work of the RNLI for many years, and says that the skills she learned from lifeboat crew about how to float if you get into difficulty in the water saved her life.

The iconic Durdle Door is an iconic spot on the Jurassic Coast to visit and social media videos encourage people to swim through the arch of the rock formation.

But the coastline there does not have a lifeguard service and the area is prone to stronger currents as the tide moves faster when it funnels through the arch of Durdle Door.


Joanna’s best loved role is as Ma Larkin opposite Bradley Walsh

Like at the centre of a washing machine

Joanna, who won her best actress BAFTA in 2022 for the movie After Love, honeymooned in Dorset in August 2009 with husband Neil Bicknell, and recalled:

“I was very overconfident, I thought ‘I’m just going to swim through Durdle Door’, jumped into the waves and thought ‘This is no problem’.

“I got quite close and couldn’t, just couldn’t make any headway. I turned around to swim back into the shore and then saw just how huge these waves were.

“I started to swim back in and I wasn’t getting anywhere, I was going nowhere. So now I’m stuck more or less like at the centre of a washing machine and I just had to say to myself ‘You have to do this’.

“What I felt in that moment was a real danger, a genuine danger of potentially drowning. Luckily, I think because I do love the water and I feel very at home in the water, I didn’t panic.”


Joanna is backing a charity draw by Omaze for a £4m home (pictured) which could raise £1m for the RNLI

“Who knows what would have happened?”

Joanna added:

“So I know, thanks to the RNLI, that you can turn on your back, you can float and you can take a rest and you can just get your breathing back into some ordinary pattern.

“If I didn’t adopt this lifesaving skill, who knows what would have happened. It’s why I am supporting the RNLI to raise vital funds for the charity.

“With these funds the RNLI can continue the amazing work they do delivering water safety messages to the public and educating them on how to stay safe in and around the water.”

Swanage Lifeboat crew
RNLI/Roydon Woodford

Swanage’s lifeboat crew have been approached for inclusion in the podcast project

Swanage crew have been approached

Joanna, who has also starred in Call The Midwife, Gentleman Jack, Doc Martin and The Thick Of It, has become one of the first people to record a piece for the RNLI’s 200 Voices daily podcast, true tales of how people’s lives have been touched by the charity.

Available across all podcast platforms and the RNLI’s website, listeners can hear from survivors, supporters, volunteers, lifeguards, celebrities and historians, and is expected to include a contribution from Swanage lifeboat crew who have been approached about the project.

Other celebrity ambassadors will include Jim Moir – better known as comedian and artist Vic Reeves – The Sixth Commandment actor Timothy Spall, Gavin and Stacey actress Ruth Jones, Irish musician Phil Coulter and gold medal Olympian sailor Sir Ben Ainslie.

The unique podcast series will also hear from people whose lives have been touched by the RNLI including Milena Smith, whose daughter Mabel was rescued by lifeboat volunteers, and Radio Caroline DJ Nick Richards, who stuck with the pirate radio ship until its last moments.


The RNLI will celebrate 200 years of saving lives at sea in March 2024

Something special to mark bicentenary

RNLI strategic content manager Rory Stamp said:

“We knew we had to do something really special to mark the RNLI’s 200th anniversary in March 2024, which is such a monumental milestone.

“200 Voices is an incredible collection of stories that are powerful, inspiring and heart warming. The series gives us a chance to hear from a whole variety of amazing people who have played a part in or been touched by our lifesaving charity.

“It is the start of a much bigger programme of activity planned to mark the RNLI’s bicentenary as we celebrate the world-class lifesaving service we provide today, remember our remarkable history and aim to inspire the future generations of lifesavers and supporters.”


The RNLI’s Float To Live campaign aims to prevent drowning deaths around the UK

Fight the instinct to swim

Float To Live is a major RNLI initiative to educate people how to increase their chances of survival in an emergency at sea or in water – by turning on their back, relaxing and floating.

Professor Mike Tipton of Portsmouth University, who worked with the RNLI for the campaign, said:

“When you fall into cold water, it increases your heart rate, blood pressure and the strain placed on your heart.

“Cold water tends to make you thrash around and try to swim hard, panicking and fighting the water. That’s the ‘fight or flight’ response, which works on land but not in water.

“Your first instinct is to get out, to swim to safety. But you need to fight this instinct until the cold shock passes, usually within 60 to 90 seconds. Then float on your back until you’re able to catch your breath.

“As for being horizontal, it’s a much less stressful position to be in. You’ve simply got to have the confidence to do nothing and to fight that instinct to thrash about and swim.”

Further information

  • Follow the RNLI’s 200 Voices podcast series on its website
  • Learn about Float To Live with the RNLI

Watch details of the Omaze and RNLI prize draw

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