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Video: Dramatic rescue at Southwold after 100 swimmers get into trouble

PUBLISHED: 08:54 27 May 2013 | UPDATED: 10:21 27 May 2013

The RAF Search and Rescue Sea King from 22 Sqn at Wattisham searches the sea at Southwold for the missing swimmer. Picture: Simon Parker

The RAF Search and Rescue Sea King from 22 Sqn at Wattisham searches the sea at Southwold for the missing swimmer. Picture: Simon Parker

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A dramatic emergency rescue was launched in Southwold after more than 100 swimmers got into difficulty during an annual swimming event.

Dozens of swimmers taking part in the Southwold Pier to Pub Swim had to be pulled or helped to safety by lifeboatmen, coastguard and lifeguards when they struggled against the tide and choppy conditions after the event started late.

Lifeboats and coastguard rescue teams and a RAF Sea King rescue helicopter from across the region were called in as first reports at about 1pm said that more than 90 swimmers out of the 133 participants were unaccounted for due to the chaotic scenes on the coastline.

The tide was so strong participants ended up back at the starting line of the mile-long course or had to give up, resulting in organisers struggling to keep up with how many people were safe.

By 4pm only one participant a 36-year-old woman from Kettering, Northamptonshire, was unacounted for – but she was located safely by 5.30pm.

Yesterday’s drama also saw one swimmer airlifted by the RAF Sea King helicopter to the James Paget University Hospital to be treated for hypothermia.

People along the beach also rallied round by giving the cold and shivering swimmers their towels and coats to keep warm.

Samantha Jessop, the sector manager for the Maritime Coastguard Agency, said: “We were alerted at about 1pm to a report of a number of missing persons who had been participating in the race.

“Early indications were that more than 90 people were unaccounted for.

“When we arrived there were a lot of people in the water. They were exhausted and very, very cold.

“Coastguard rescue team members went in to the sea to help people out and lifeboat crews pulled others out to safety.

“By 4pm we had stopped the maritime search.

“The contributing factors were a heavy swell, people were swimming against the tide and the water was cold.

“It was a real multi-agency operation and I would like to thank everyone who took part.”

Lifeboats from Southwold, Lowestoft and Aldeburgh attended the rescue as did coastguard rescue teams from Southwold and Lowestoft, Aldeburgh and Gorleston.

In a swansong for the RNLI Southwold lifeboat crew their Atlantic 75 boat, the Leslie Tranmer, was used to rescue 58 people – just days before she is due to be replaced by the improved Atlantic 85, the Annie Tranmer.

Members of Southwold’s RNLI lifeguards also helped 27 people to the shore.

Simon Callaghan, helmsman at Southwold RNLI lifeboat station, said: “We were out on a regular Sunday exercise when we heard a swimmer calling for help.

“After that we had one of the busiest times I can remember, rescuing 58 people altogether.

“Our volunteer crew, the lifeguards and other rescue teams involved all responded brilliantly and may have averted what could have become a much more serous incident.”

RNLI lifeguard supervisor Jo Thompson added: “We had two lifeguards in the water on rescue boards, recovering people who became very cold and tired and so couldn’t swim any further and also escorted other people out of the water and back to the beach.”

The Southwold Pier to Pub Swim courses was one-mile long with experienced swimmers expected to take 20 minutes to complete it.

Sarah Greenwood, 26, from Wymondham, and a member of UEA City of Norwich Swimming Club, took 55 minutes to finish – while her mother Jane Blackwell, 56, also from Wymondham, ended up back at the starting line.

Miss Greenwood, a teacher at Old Catton Junior School, said it was the worst conditions she has ever swum in.

She said: “I felt I was being pushed back all the time. It was the tide that was the hard part, it was just so strong.

“We both ended up swallowing a lot of water and were both tired.”

A 49-year-old company director from Kent said he had swam for one hour and 10 minutes and felt he was making no headway so he swam back to shore.

The man, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “It should have taken me 20 minutes to complete it. “The race started 30 minutes late and I think that was what caused all the problems.

“I was just making no headway whatsover. After an hour and 10 minutes I felt I had got nowhere.

“When we all got out there on the water and everyone was swimming against the tide.”

Yesterday also saw police cordon off the area around the lifeguard hut by Southwold Pier to create an emergency co-ordination zone and officers also helped to track down people who were unaccounted for, including the woman from Kettering.

The East of England Ambulance service also sent one ambulance as a precaution.

Yesterday’s swim started at 12.20pm instead of noon at the north of Southwold Pier and its finishing point was at the south end of North Parade via four buoys.

Last night the organiser of the race, Simon Edwards, said starting 20 minutes later than expected had led to the swimmers battling against the tide.

Mr Edwards, of Norwich-based Active Outdoor Sport, said: “It started late as the buoys and boats had to be in position.

“That had a big impact on the swimmers due to the tide.

“People were struggling from the beginning.

“At the finishing line it was clear that people were not finishing and were struggling so our experts contacted the lifeboat and coastguard through the arrangements we had in place.

“We also had systems in place to account for people and we would expect 90pc of people at least to follow them.

“Of course we will learn lessons from this and will talk to the RNLI and coastguard about what happened to see if anything more can be done.”

Last night Simon Tobin, the mayor of Southwold, paid tribute the town’s RNLI volunteers who rescued 58 swimmers.

He said: “They are highly dedicated people who put in long hours for no financial reward and put themselves in very, very dangerous situations. We should all be very proud of them.”

Paying another tribute to all volunteers involved in the rescue Mr Tobin added: “They were all extremely professional and that is the best compliment you can say.”

Southwold’s RNLI crew is due to receive the Annie Tranmer – an Atlantic 85 class craft – tomorrow.

She will replace the station’s current lifeboat, the Leslie Tranmer, allowing the crew to respond to shouts even more quickly.

The new lifeboat has a crew of four, one more than the Leslie Tranmer, and carries more kit, including VHF radio, VHF direction-finding equipment, an intercom and electronic chart, radar and hand-held VHF, as well as a searchlight, night-vision equipment and illuminating paraflares for night-time operations. She is powered by two 115hp engines, has a stronger hull and greater top speed than her predecessor and can operate even after capsizing. The new boat has been funded by the Annie Tranmer Charitable Trust which helps good causes in Suffolk.

The new boat and modifications to the lifeboat station to accommodate her cost about £250,000.

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