Photo: Nigel Millard/RNLI
Castlerock Beach, near Coleraine, is a beautiful stretch of sand. Just along Northern Ireland’s north coast from the Giant’s Causeway, it boasts a pier, nature reserve and wonderful views of the Foyle estuary.
But, on August 5 2009, 13-year-old Matthew Rathfield-Forsythe from Limavady felt that he’d seen it all before. He wanted to show his school friend Reece Sufferin, who had come to stay with Matthew and his family in their caravan, something a little more exciting.
“Like to explore this cave I’ve found?” asked Matthew.
“Yeah, OK,” said Reece, 14. So, with Matthew’s 11-year-old brother Aaron in tow, the boys clambered over rocks at the foot of a cliff on the beach. The cave appeared in front of them, its entrance partially submerged. To get in, they had to jump into the head-high water and swim.
“I’ll wait here,” said a sceptical Aaron, but it was a warm afternoon and Matthew and Reece plunged in in their shorts and T-shirts.
It was worth it. The cave was around 24 metres deep and 9 metres high, with a dog-leg shape that made it very dark and a shingle beach at the back. They spent a happy hour building dams.
Then the water lapping onto the beach started to get a little deeper. “We should go – but not yet,” said Matthew. The cold water didn’t look appealing, but the tide continued to build and soon the water was round the boys’ ankles. Now it was definitely time to leave.
Matthew jumped off the beach into water that was now surging around the dog-leg. A large wave threw him back into the rocks. He tried again, but the surge was impossible to fight. “Let’s wait,” suggested Reece. “The tide will go out again.” By now it was almost 4.30 pm.
Meanwhile, Aaron had got bored waiting outside and headed back to the caravan. “Are the others with you?” asked his mother Pamela.
“No, they’re exploring a cave,” said Aaron. That didn’t seem right. The boys were going to the cinema that evening and needed to be back to eat first. Pamela called the coastguard.
A KILOMETRE ALONG THE COAST, in the village of Portrush, 51-year-old Anthony Chambers, a mechanic with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), was preparing his son Alistair’s dinner. His pager beeped. Two boys were missing.
Anthony and his crew hurried to the Portrush lifeboat station and launched their lifeboat. The inshore lifeboat, a 5-metre dinghy used in shallow water, accompanied them. They got a lot of calls like this in August. Usually, the kids wandered home of their own accord. Anthony expected to be back for dinner. “I’ll probably pop to the gym after that,” he told second mechanic David Connolly, as the search began.
Back in the cave, the boys were starting to worry. Surely Aaron would have gone back to fetch Matthew’s mum? It was now past five o’clock and the water was starting to reach their thighs.
Just then, there was a shout from the entrance. It sounded like “Hello”. In between wave surges, the boys ran far enough forward to see a man on a rope at the entrance of the cave. The coastguard had been searching the cliffs, and their abseiler had spotted them and shouted something like “Stay calm”.
Messages flew between the abseiler and his commander and the lifeboats.
“Can you get to the boys?” said the commanding officer.
“Negative,” said the abseiler.
“What about the helicopter?”
There was a deafening silence on the boats. The crewmen knew the tide would be over the boys’ heads by 7 pm – an hour and a half away. The water was choppy, with a swell of up to 2 metres, and a reef guarded the cave entrance. Getting the dinghy into it would be near impossible. What are we going to do here? thought Anthony.
SENIOR HELMSMAN GERARD BRADLEY, 42, accelerated the dinghy towards the cave. The reef almost encircled the cliff face, running out roughly 20 metres or so from the cave, with only a narrow 3-metre gap to the cliff, another 3 metres down. The sea lurched, exposing the rocky reef.
The boulders the boys had climbed over were long since submerged. Try-ing to get the dinghy through the gap would involve turning it side-on to the incoming waves, making it very vulnerable to capsizing. But the even less appealing alternative was for someone to get into the water further up the reef, climb over and swim for it.
Gerard positioned the boat on the crest of a wave, rolled towards the gap, and then tried to squeeze the dinghy through before the next wave came. The crashing water was on them within seconds, and Gerard had to retreat. He tried again. The same thing happened.
He moved the boat back along the reef and reluctantly asked 21-year-old crewman Karl O’Neill to swim for it, attached to the dinghy by a safety rope. There was every chance that the rope would snag – and Karl could be smashed on the rocks – but they had to try something. It was now almost 6 pm.
Karl swam for the reef, but the swell sapped his strength and he found himself struggling almost immediately.
This isn’t going to happen, Gerard thought, and pulled him back in.
INSIDE THE CAVE, THE TWO teenagers were now waist-deep in water. They were trying to be optimistic, jokily blaming each other for the mess they were in. But they had glimpsed the dinghy’s failed attempts and were wondering if they’d have to stay in the cave all night, treading water. The water was no more than 10 degrees Celsius. They’d done life-saving courses before – they knew hypothermia would set in soon.
On the main lifeboat, Anthony was getting frustrated doing nothing. He’d watched Karl’s attempt to try to reach the cave. But Anthony had been in the RNLI for 31 years and told himself that with all that experience, he might be able to make it without the rope. Gerard got a call on the radio, “Come and get me.”
He’s nuts, thought Gerard, but Anthony was one of those characters you couldn’t say no to.
Anthony planned to get the boys out one by one. He tucked a helmet and life jacket under his arm and perched on the end of the dinghy. It crested a wave and Anthony jumped, rode the surf and crashed onto the reef. As he collected himself, another wave scooped him up and smashed him into the rocks.
Welcome to the show! he thought, coughing up salty surf. I’ve really got myself into something here.
The spare helmet filled with water as Anthony struck out for the cave, pulling at him like a dead weight. But Anthony made it to the ever-shortening entrance and grabbed the wall.
As water rushed back out of the cave he lost his grip and had to start all over again. After five painful minutes, he reached the dog-leg. The only light was that reflected off the water, but Anthony could just make out two silhouettes at the back of the cave.
The boys caught a brief glimpse of him as he swam towards them, before the waves flung him back into the rocks and he disappeared below the surface.
Up he came again, and again the surf forced him under. Finally, he caught an incoming wave and landed almost on top of the teenagers.
“All right, boys?” he said.
“Who’s out there looking for us?” they asked. “Will this be on the news?”
A few local journalists had arrived. “Aye,” said Anthony. “Sky News is out there. Even Sky Sports News.”
Anthony quickly decided to take Matthew first. He was shaking with cold, but didn’t panic as Anthony put the helmet and life jacket on him. “Lie on your back and kick in time with me,” the lifeboatman told him.
They pushed out into the water, Anthony swimming backstroke, dragging Matthew behind him.
The incoming waves made edging out of the cave an arduous process. They kept kicking each other and Matthew could feel jagged rocks against his thigh. The youngster was starting to panic – he couldn’t breathe in the surf – but told himself to keep it together “for the cameras”.
When they reached the entrance, the coastguard abseiler passed down a harness. Anthony had never used this design before. He tried desperately to attach it to Matthew but, with the water tossing them around, the straps seemed like a complicated jigsaw. I’ve got the lad this far without a scratch on him, thought Anthony. I don’t want to have to get him over that reef.
SEEING ANTHONY WAS IN TROUBLE, Gerard moved the dinghy towards the gap in the reef. The waves made it still too dangerous to get too close, but he could at least throw a line to Anthony and Matthew and drag them towards him.
The crewmen pulled Matthew on board and Gerard handed Anthony another life jacket and helmet. He could see that his friend was exhausted and wouldn’t be able to go through all that twice. He’d already been in the water for 20 minutes.
While Anthony swam back to the cave, Gerard took Matthew back to the main boat – then took a gamble. He’d been bobbing up and down by that reef for so long, he reckoned that he’d worked out the exact pattern of the waves.
When the moment came, Gerard rode a surge towards the cliff, turned, and with split-second timing, pulled hard on the accelerator to get through the gap – just before the next huge bank of surf pounded into the rocks behind him.
As Anthony reached Reece, his legs gave way with exhaustion. “I need a moment,” he told the boy, then vomited quietly behind a large rock, not wanting him to see.
They were both freezing, but surging with adrenalin. When they plunged into the water, they kicked as hard as they could. Anything his friend could do, Reece reckoned, he could do too.
As they rounded the dog-leg, Anthony realised his strength had finally run out. But there in the cave mouth was Gerard and the dinghy. “I’m so glad to see you,” Anthony gasped after he’d pulled Reece over the last few metres.
At last the dinghy edged out of the cave through the gap in the reef. Mercifully, the sea was calmer.
Back on the main lifeboat, Anthony collapsed on the deck. He’d been in the water for more than half an hour. “Are you still going to the gym then, or have you had your workout?” grinned David Connolly.
A coastguard helicopter flew the boys to hospital, where they received treatment for hypothermia; doctors estimated they had been just ten minutes from death. The tide was just half an hour from flooding over their heads.
Having recovered overnight, the boys came to see Anthony at the lifeboat station next day to say thanks.
“They were a bit monosyllabic,” laughs Anthony. “They’re teenage boys!” But his rescue has also just been recognised more publicly – in London early last year – when he was presented with the RNLI’s Bronze Award for Gallantry, with the two grateful boys and their families in attendance.
Gerard Bradley and Karl O’Neill also received an official letter of thanks from RNLI chairman Admiral the Lord Boyce for their assistance in the rescue.
“I’ve been on lifeboats for 22 years,” says Gerard. “And I still don’t know how we’d have got to those boys without Anthony. He really was the last throw of the dice.”
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