Family kayak trip was perfect day out – but moments later it turned to disaster

For Julie Heylings, kayaking with her family was the perfect day out. Spending time at their holiday apartment in Trearddur Bay, Wales, Julie and her daughter Megan were heading out to their favourite spot, a beached area called Smiley Lagoon.

But although they’d confidently been hitting the water for almost a decade, Julie was about to discover how unpredictable it could be.

‘We don’t take risks,’ she explains.

‘If it doesn’t look like it’s suitable to get out there, we don’t, but this day the weather was perfectly calm. We were having fun and racing each other, literally just 100 metres from the shore.’

At 17, Julie’s daughter Megan had a big social life and had introduced a few of her friends to her love of kayaking. On this particular occasion, Julie had taken Megan and her friends Rachel and Katie away on the trip.

Katie was a first-timer. ‘I decided to share my kayak with Katie, as she was a beginner,’ says Julie. ‘So Megan and Rachel went off together and were enjoying the views. What happened next is something I have never seen before.’

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Julie recalls how a large wave came from nowhere, completely disorientating her and the girls. In a body of water where they usually felt completely at ease, they suddenly felt utterly helpless.

‘The sea had started to become a bit unsettled, but nothing we’d normally worry about,’ Julie explains. ‘We were heading towards a more open area of the sea from the lagoon, past a vista point we call “Spooky House”.

'Rachel and Megan were a little bit ahead of us and then the wave came out of nowhere and lifted them up. I can’t describe it – it was like it happened in slow motion. It was a nightmarish moment and we couldn’t do a thing about it.’

Perhaps more distressing for Julie was that, she not only had her own daughter to protect, but a duty of care for Megan’s friends too.

‘Out of the corner of my eye as I tried to steady our kayak, I noticed that Megan and Rachel’s kayak had been thrown up so dramatically that it had smashed down against a rock,’ she tells us.

‘I could see that Rachel had landed on a large rock, so she was bruised but moving fine and in a safe position. It was Megan who had been tipped out into the freezing water. I kept losing sight of her so had to kayak towards the rocks myself.’

Julie went into auto-pilot and pulled her mobile phone from the waterproof carrier she had on her. As the area was familiar, she knew the exact spot where she would have reception.

She was used to ringing her husband Mark to let him know what time they’d be back, and she headed to that spot to call a friend who volunteers for the RNLI. Luckily, he started organising a rescue mission, while Julie planned her next move. She had to head to the choppiest part of the sea.

‘I was so frightened, but I had responsibility for two additional children,’ Julie explains. ‘I could see the kayak floating about with neither of the girls in it. I could see where Megan was – trying to drag herself onto some lower rocks and then I realised she was bleeding on her face.'

'I started shouting at her to try and pull herself up out of the water. I couldn’t go any further with Katie with me as it would put her at risk too. I couldn’t get to her. That was the hardest thing for me.’

During her panic, the RNLI were working behind the scenes to arrange a rescue mission. Now Julie’s main goal was to try and keep the girls calm.

‘Considering it was her first time at sea, Katie was incredible,’ Julie tells us in awe. ‘She was so calm and helpful. Very switched on and I was giving instructions to make sure we didn’t tip. If she’d have lost the plot it would have been a nightmare!’ she jokes.

‘We managed to get to a spot where we could keep both the girls in our eyeline and shout instructions. I’d never have been able to haul myself up to the rock but Megan is young and fit so managed it.

'Rachel had landed on the rocks above so I was shouting to her to keep talking to Megan. I was so worried about how cold she was.’

It took 20 minutes for the RNLI team to arrive which Julie described as ‘the longest 20 minutes of her life’. The tide was coming in so fast that the rocks were starting to be covered in water. Any later, and the girls could have been washed out to sea once more.

‘One of the guys lost his footing when he entered the water because the waves were so bad,’ explains Julie. ‘But they managed to reach the girls and help Rachel to the shore while they took Megan away on a stretcher. I waited in the water with Katie in our kayak until they were both at the shore but we were absolutely frozen having been soaked through.’

Next was every parent’s worst nightmare; the wait to hear what injuries had been inflicted. Julie found herself panicking when she saw Megan helplessly lying on the stretcher, but she needn’t have worried.

‘I remember paddling to shore and running towards the car to get to the lifeboat station. I’d managed to get a message through to my husband, so he was already down there.

They’d wrapped her in blankets and had an ambulance ready to take her to hospital in case she had any serious spinal injuries.

‘Luckily, it was just a bruised spine,’ Julie says, relieved. ‘In fact, Megan was so chilled out that when I started crying in shock she rolled her eyes and asked the hospital staff to take me away and leave her with her dad!’

Megan also had a nasty leg injury from the rocks, but that didn’t stop her achieving her beloved Duke of Edinburgh Gold, which she’d been training for before the accident.

Ten weeks later, Megan completed a gruelling 50-mile trek across the Lake District. Now Julie and her family realise how lucky they were and work tirelessly to raise money for the RNLI, so they can assist others in need.

Julie’s father, Malcolm Proudlock, is a well-known fisherman, his connections allowed him and a friend to auction off a fishing experience and raise £5,000.

Julie’s husband raised £550 by completing the Anglesey triathlon, and random well-wishers also arrived at Megan’s home with envelopes of cash for the charity.

But it wasn’t just the family offering support to the people who had rescued them – the crew at the RNLI stayed in touch with the family, and had regular updates on Rachel and Megan. These days the family still enjoy kayaking and have even returned to the location of the accident, which wasn’t easy for Megan.

‘The one message from the RNLI was, don’t let something like this spoil your fun, especially if you’ve been doing it for years,’ says Julie. ‘I think it’s very character building for all of us as a family, to have this experience and come out the other side.’

As for Megan, she hasn’t spoken much about the ordeal but Julie is prepared for the tears to fall when she feels ready. But for now, Julie knows Megan will make a full recovery.

‘We started bickering again!’ she laughs. ‘Because she is a teenager after all. But it felt like bliss to have her back. It was normality again. This whole experience has made us realise just how lucky we are. We will always be grateful for what the RNLI did for us that day.’

– Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of
Ireland coasts.

– They operate over 238 lifeboat stations and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands.

– Since it was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved more than 142,000 lives.

– In 2018, the charity’s volunteer lifeboat crews launched 8,964 times and helped 9,412 people, while its lifeguards responded to 19,449 incidents and helped 32,207 people.

– The RNLI’s crews and lifeguards have been busier than ever, and the charity relies on voluntary donations to ensure they have the very best kit and training to save lives at sea.

– To donate to the RNLI, click here

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