Southwold: Organiser of Pier to Pub Swim says ‘lessons will be learnt’ after large scale rescue

The RAF Search and Rescue Sea King from 22 Sqn at Wattisham searches the sea at Southwold for the mi

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

The organiser of an annual open water event last night pledged that “lessons will be learnt” after a dramatic emergency rescue was launched when 100 swimmers got into difficulty.

A search and rescue operation was carried out in Southwold on Sunday afternoon after there were comp

A search and rescue operation was carried out in Southwold on Sunday afternoon after there were complications with a charity swim. - Credit: Archant

Dozens of people taking part in the Southwold Pier to Pub Swim had to be helped to safety by lifeboatmen, the coastguard and lifeguards when they struggled against the tide and choppy conditions.

The drama unfolded around 1pm yesterday after reports that more than 90 swimmers out of the 133 participants were unaccounted for.

The tide was so strong swimmers 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 still believed to be missing – but she was located safely by 5.30pm.

One swimmer was airlifted by an RAF search and rescue helicopter from Wattisham Airfield to the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston to be treated for hypothermia.

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.

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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 90% 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.”

Lifeboats, coastguard rescue teams and the RAF Sea King search and rescue helicopter were called in following the initial reports, while 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: “When we arrived there were a lot of people in the water. They were exhausted and very, very cold. Coastguard rescue team members went into the sea to help people out and lifeboat crews pulled others out to safety.

“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, as did coastguard rescue teams from Southwold and Lowestoft, Aldeburgh and Gorleston.

Simon Callaghan, helmsman at Southwold RNLI, said everyone involved responded “brilliantly”.

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

Whitney Edwards, a local writer who knew two people taking part, said: “All entrants swam completely against the current.

“Almost all swimmers couldn’t finish as they were swimming on the spot and exhausting themselves, so the few safety boats became overwhelmed. An incredibly scary end to an event that should have been so much smoother and fun.”

Another eyewitness, who did not want to be named, said: “Very quickly it looked like people were having problems. One of the guys said the wind had changed.

“One of my friends who took part said it was like swimming on a treadmill. She spent an hour in the water and ended up north of where she had started. She was supposed to be swimming south.

“I was told that only about 20 people out of the original 130 actually finished the course. Lots were rescued by the lifeboat, and others just gave up and swam back to shore.”