Bay Search and Rescue - the team saving lives in Morecambe Bay
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 May 2020
An emergency rescue team in Morecambe Bay have rescued scores of people and now have state-of-the-art kit that could save even more lives.
No-one now knows why the man was walking on the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay. He was a regular visitor, so was presumably aware of the dangers of the rapid tides and cloying quicksand.
When he was spotted by a farmer at 5am on a Sunday morning in 1996, he had been trapped for about 16 hours.
The police and fire service were called but didn’t have the equipment to rescue him and summoned the coastguard who used water pumps to get him out just minutes before the tide rushed in.
Gary Parsons was a part of the coastguard team at Arnside who saved the man from death on the sands that day and the incident prompted him to ponder how further tragedies could be avoided in Morecambe Bay.
‘He was quite a long way out and stuck in a channel,’ Gary says. ‘But we had no equipment to get to him. We had to walk about half a mile to reach him, carrying the kit we needed to get him out.
‘I talked with a few colleagues after the incident about how we could do things better. We knew we needed the ability to travel across the bay and have our equipment with us. We bought a small hovercraft to see how good they were and what they could do. We were impressed; we could cross the bay in a few minutes and and we were surprised how much we could carry.’
A few months later Bay Search and Rescue (BSAR) was founded and in the days after the charity’s launch they used a hovercraft to rescue a woman from a sandbank.
‘That was a different hovercraft, but it paid for itself on that first rescue,’ Gary says.
Since then BSAR have expanded their reach and have played important roles in rescues across the county, and beyond. They have resuced stranded motorists from deep snow, helped fight the moorland fires at Saddleworth and on Winter Hill and helped evacuate people – and a menagerie of animals – from flood-hit areas of Yorkshire.
‘There was one house in Fishlake where we were asked to evacuate a python, an owl, a Harris Hawk, two dogs and a hamster at the same time as the family,’ says Gary.
It was somewhat outside BSAR’s focus on Morecambe Bay but, as Gary says: ‘We got the call, so what can you do?’ And while he makes light of their unpaid rescue work, it involved wading waist-deep through cold, deep water encountering a range of hazardous situations, including floating LPG gas tanks, and dealing with distressed people in real trouble.
In 2013, when the main road from Millom was blocked by exceptionally heavy snow, leaving motorists stranded and the military and other rescue services unable to reach the scene, it was BSAR’s team with their specialist equipment that rescued 70 people. And when Alston was cut off by snow, BSAR’s vehicles delivered 1.5 tonnes of food, medical and welfare supplies.
As well as their often dramatic and last-minute life-saving of individuals and families, the team have equipment that can cope with the tricky rescue of large animals – both in the sands and other situations – and they retrieved dozens of barrels of a lard type substance washed into the bay from a shipwreck near Blackpool.
Fourteen highly trained rescue personnel are co-ordinated by the station HQ in Flookborough and BSAR also shares an additional vehicle compound with Lancashire’s Fire and Rescue Service station in Bolton-le-Sands. They work with both Lancashire and Cumbria Fire and Rescue Services, and are now an official on-call Technical Rescue and Support Unit for both.
‘After many years of providing our life-saving service in our local area, we realised we could play an important role in other situations,’ Gary says. ‘Having said that, we will never neglect our primary duty to the safety of the those who are unlucky enough to fall foul of the sands of the bay.’
As well as speedy and specially modified Hagglund personnel carriers, Toyota Hilux 4x4s, different types of inflatables and essential Transporters, BSAR boasts two pieces of equipment in its fleet that are unique in the UK. A Search and Rescue Airboat (similar to those used in the evacuation of New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina) can operate in just an inch of water or even on wet grass. With no moving parts below water level, it is ideal for wide area flooding sitations covering large distances across farmland where floating debris could easily disable other types of vehicle.
And the newest addition to their fleet looks like something out of a James Bond movie. The ‘Sherp’ has a steel and aluminium carrier body that is buoyant and can stay afloat even without the wheels touching the ground. Massive tyres span the length of the whole vehicle and can be inflated and deflated via an onboard system, with their deep tread grooves doubling as paddles in the water. In addition to snow, mud and marshes, this speedy amphibious cross-country vehicle can overcome large obstacles so it’s a real asset. It was purchased specifically with Morecambe Bay in mind because, unlike any other vehicle, it and its crew can safely go out on a rescue mission even as the tide races in.
BSAR now has the capacity to rescue 80 people at once, which is a crucial asset in the case of possible major disasters – downed aircraft or stranded boats. The largest scale serious incident in Morecambe Bay in recent years, of course, was the cockle pickers disaster in Ferbruary 2004 which claimed the lives of at least 21 Chinese workers.
Improved licencing and regulations since then have meant that, apart from a couple of near misses, there have been no major incidents in the intervening years.
Future plans include expanding the BSAR HQ at Flookborough so the airboat can be moved there from its current storage site in Milnthorpe and purchasing a second Sherp to more efficiently cover the whole of the bay. But of course, these cost money – James Bond-level kit doesn’t come cheap, even though Gary is a wily negotiator when it comes to discounts and there is a lot of help-in-kind from local individuals and businesses.
Major beneficiaries to the charity have been the Holker Estate, which lets BSAR have their headquarters for a peppercorn rent, and over the years, grants have been received from the Sir John Fisher Foundation, the Freda Scott Trust and the Princes Trust, among others.
BSAR’s biggest ongoing fundraising asset though is the two well run and popular charity shops manned by more than 20 volunteers in Grange-over-Sands and Milnthorpe, with a third in Kendal on the wish-list.
Professionally overseen by Abigail Shepherd – who previously worked for Arcadia and Fat Face – the shops are a well-supported and key part of the community and donations continue to flood in from locals and people further afield. So much so that, since Abigail joined the team a year ago, the business has grown by more than 25%.
WhHAT TO DO
If you see anyone in trouble in our coastal waters, in the first instance, you should dial 999 and ask for the Coastguard.