Desperately clutching on to his 11-year-old daughter Grace as they were buffeted by waves nearly a mile from the shore, Ben Biltcliffe had a terrifying thought. “It struck me that perhaps no one was coming,” he recalls. “It was a frightening and lonely moment.”
By then Ben had been treading water in the freezing North Sea for nearly an hour after going to his daughter’s rescue when she was caught in a riptide that swept her – and then him – out to sea.
In fact help was on its way in the form of an RNLI lifeboat crew, who undertook a dramatic rescue amid the wind and waves. A few minutes later, Ben believes, and it may have been too late.
His experience – one of several shown in Saving Lives at Sea, the returning documentary series looking at the RNLI’s vital work – underlines how quickly a sunny afternoon by the sea can so nearly end in tragedy.
It’s something Ben, 47, from Bedale, North Yorkshire, now knows only too well. In the late summer of 2015, together with Grace, his former partner Alannah and their 12-year-old son Peter, he was enjoying a family afternoon on the beach at Robin Hood’s Bay on the north-east coast, without an inkling of the dangers in the water.
He recalls how his daughter was holding his hand as they jumped up and down in the waves. “She then let go of me, although she was still within arm’s reach,” Ben recalls now. “But the next thing I saw was that she’d gone and was being pushed along.”
Unbeknown to Ben, Grace had been caught in a riptide, an unpredictable current that moves directly away from the shore – and as he went after his daughter, he was also caught up in it.
“The sand was disappearing from beneath my feet with every step I took – it was like walking up an egg timer,” he says. “When I reached Grace it was up to my chest, and you could feel the force underneath.”
At this point, relatively unperturbed, Ben told his daughter they would have to swim to shore – only to find they couldn’t. “I quickly realised that we weren’t going in, we were going out. The current was so strong.”
The shoreline now invisible through the breakers, all Ben could do was try to calm his daughter as the waves crashed over their heads. “I tried to gently cup her under the chin and put her head on my chest like they teach you in lifesaving at school but the surf was too strong. Grace was really panicking and trying to climb on top of me, which was pushing me under. I could feel my own panic rising as I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep this up for much longer.”
Racking his brain, Ben came up with another idea. “I was wearing an old cotton shirt and realised that if I took it off I might be able to trap a bit of air in it to create a makeshift float.”
Thinking it was one thing, executing it quite another. “I had to push Grace away to take the shirt off and flap it above me to create an air pocket. I was terrified she would be carried further out, but I felt I had no choice.”
The “grapefruit-sized” float, which he placed under Grace’s head, did at least help, although it was also at the mercy of the waves. “It would get squashed and I would have to start over again.”
As father and daughter floated, facing in opposite directions with their right arms interlocked, Ben shouting encouragement to his daughter over the wind and waves as the minutes ticked by.
“By now we were level with the headland, which I later learned was about a mile out to sea. I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is it’. But your survival instinct kicks in. All I could focus on was not letting Grace go.”
By now father and daughter had been in the water for more than 45 minutes, and Grace was complaining of the cold. “It was a horrible moment, as there was nothing I could do. My arms were exhausted from supporting her and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go on.”
Thankfully, minutes later an RNLI lifeboat raced alongside. “I’ve never been so glad to see anybody in my life,” says Ben. “I pushed Grace into the boat and I had nothing left. I went limp.”
Ben and Grace were then airlifted by helicopter to hospital, where they were treated for hypothermia.
Nearly two years on, Grace still cannot talk about her ordeal, although it hasn’t put her off the water. “Thankfully she still enjoys swimming,” says Ben.
He remains eternally grateful to the crew who came to their rescue. “As they pulled me into the boat, one of them said I was a hero for keeping my daughter alive. But to me they’re the heroes because they volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way for others.”
Saving Lives at Sea returns on Wednesday 16 August at 8pm on BBC2