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  • Writer's pictureLove Ballymena

Surfer recalls rescue as RNLI celebrates 200 years and over 146,000 lives saved

Surfer Matthew Best from Lisburn pictured with RNLI Lifeguard Supervisor Annie Jagoe who was involved in his rescue at Benone Beach.

Surfer Matthew Best from Lisburn pictured with RNLI Lifeguard Supervisor Annie Jagoe who was involved in his rescue at Benone Beach.


Today, Monday (4 March 2024) the RNLI celebrates 200 years of saving lives at sea and on inland waters – thanks to volunteer lifeboat crews and seasonal lifeguards giving their time to save others.

On the day the charity turns 200, the RNLI is revealing its volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved an incredible 146,277 lives during its two centuries of lifesaving.



At the charity’s 10 lifeboat stations in Northern Ireland, lifeboats have launched 9,472 times with their volunteers saving 1,535 lives and coming to the aid of thousands of more. Since the introduction of lifeguards to Northern Ireland in 2011, the RNLI’s seasonal teams based along the Causeway Coast and in County Down have responded to 2,894 incidents, coming to the aid of 3,461 people, 47 of whom were lives saved.


Volunteers from the RNLI’s 10 lifeboat stations in Northern Ireland are Phil Ford-Hutchinson from Larne, Alan Shaw from Enniskillen RNLI, Mark McCullough from Kilkeel, Stephen McMaster from Carrybridge, Kevin Allen from Red Bay, Ben Durrant from Portrush, Andrew Lynas from Newcastle, RNLI Trustee Paddy McLaughlin from Cushendall, Philip McNamara from Donaghadee, Molly Crowe from Portaferry. They are pictured alongside surfer Matthew Best rescued at Benone Beach and Lifeguard Supervisor Annie Jagoe. Pictured on the lifeboat are Bangor RNLI crew Russell McGovern, Jack Irwin, Johnny Gedge and James Gillespie and in the water are RNLI Lifeguard Supervisors Karl O’Neill and Conard McCullagh.

Volunteers from the RNLI’s 10 lifeboat stations in Northern Ireland are Phil Ford-Hutchinson from Larne, Alan Shaw from Enniskillen RNLI, Mark McCullough from Kilkeel, Stephen McMaster from Carrybridge, Kevin Allen from Red Bay, Ben Durrant from Portrush, Andrew Lynas from Newcastle, RNLI Trustee Paddy McLaughlin from Cushendall, Philip McNamara from Donaghadee, Molly Crowe from Portaferry. They are pictured alongside surfer Matthew Best rescued at Benone Beach and Lifeguard Supervisor Annie Jagoe. Pictured on the lifeboat are Bangor RNLI crew Russell McGovern, Jack Irwin, Johnny Gedge and James Gillespie and in the water are RNLI Lifeguard Supervisors Karl O’Neill and Conard McCullagh.

Long serving RNLI crew member, Donaghadee RNLI Coxswain Philip McNamara who has been helping to save lives at sea for 41 years.

Long serving RNLI crew member, Donaghadee RNLI Coxswain Philip McNamara who has been helping to save lives at sea for 41 years.


Among those to be rescued is Matthew Best from Lisburn who got into difficulty while surfing. When RNLI lifeguard Annie Jagoe heard the words ‘unconscious body in the water’ over her VHF radio, she scanned Benone Beach. Hearing that the casualty couldn’t move, she grabbed her spinal board.


Despite suffering spinal injuries, on the anniversary of his accident one year later, Mathew made a return to surfing and Annie was at his side.



"It was the 5 June. I'd gone out to surf with three friends at Benone Beach," Matthew recalls. "We’d been out a while already, an hour and a half maybe, just surfing as normal. Up to a point, I remember everything, but the exact moment of my incident - I don't know exactly what happened. My assumption is I surfed a wave and the way I came off my board, either I went in head first or the way the waves crashed on me once I went into the water caused me to hit my head on the bottom of the sand. I'm quite tall, about 6’4” and the water was about my height. I hit my head on the bottom, then floated to the top.

"At that point I was still awake but essentially paralysed from the shoulders down. It turns out the vertebrae in my neck had broken, and I had completely crushed my spinal cord. I found myself floating face down in the water. I knew straight away I had broken my neck, but I could still move my shoulders. It was at that point I thought this is it, and I thought about my family and my poor mum when she would get the news."



Matthew’s friend was able to get to him and flip him over: "After a few seconds, I came to. I think I said ‘thanks for saving me, mate. I think I've broken my neck’. He was great. He was super calm. I owe a lot to him."


From left, RNLI Lifeguard Supervisors Karl O’Neill and Conard McCullagh, RNLI Trustee Paddy McLaughlin, and Kevin Allen, Red Bay RNLI Lifeboat Operations Manager. Kneeling, from left, volunteers Phil Ford-Hutchinson from Larne and Ben Durrant from Portrush alongside Lifeguard Supervisor Annie Jagoe.

From left, RNLI Lifeguard Supervisors Karl O’Neill and Conard McCullagh, RNLI Trustee Paddy McLaughlin, and Kevin Allen, Red Bay RNLI Lifeboat Operations Manager. Kneeling, from left, volunteers Phil Ford-Hutchinson from Larne and Ben Durrant from Portrush alongside Lifeguard Supervisor Annie Jagoe.


Annie Jagoe was one of the team of RNLI lifeguards working on Benone Beach that day. She brought the spinal board on scene.


"I got down there and thankfully Matthew was lying awake," Annie says. "I asked him how are you feeling, are you in any pain. On a scale of 1-10, he said it was five, not that painful but he knew something was wrong. I said we need to get you out of the water and assess you. Thankfully, he was still floating so I asked his friend to stay holding his head and we worked to get the spinal board beneath him with the help of all our team. On the beach, there was a former Coastguard and a doctor, so we had all the assistance we needed until the arrival of the ambulance service, working to ensure Matthew’s condition didn’t worsen and that he was made as comfortable as possible."



Matthew was subsequently transferred to Altnagelvin Area Hospital before undergoing nine hours of spinal surgery in the Royal Victoria Hospital the next day, a month of bed rest, followed by an intensive rehabilitation and recovery programme at Musgrave Park Hospital.

A year on from his accident, Matthew with the help of Annie made a return to surfing:


"Six to eight months down the line," Annie says. "We exchanged contact details through a friend of mine. We met up and during the course of one of our conversations Matthew told me he would like to get on a board again. On the anniversary of his accident he got in touch and said I think I am ready to try surfing again so we did a one to one, he was very keen, his mobility was great, there were some things he wasn’t quite able to do but his progress was incredible and just to see him stand up on the wave, up on the board progressing, is something I find hard to describe, there was so much excitement and joy for him. It was surreal to know that a year ago from that moment he couldn’t walk at all.


"As a lifeguard, it so nice to go to your job and know that you can help someone that day, it’s great."



Such is Matthew’s love for the water and surfing, he is now regularly back in the sea and with a fond appreciation of the role the RNLI played in his rescue and return to the surf: "The RNLI helps thousands of people every year. I was one of those people and if it hadn’t have been for the RNLI, mine could have been a very different story."

Since the charity was founded in 1824 following an appeal from Sir William Hillary, who lived on the Isle of Man and witnessed many shipwrecks, the RNLI has continued saving lives at sea throughout the tests of its history.

Two centuries have seen vast developments in the lifeboats and kit used by the charity’s lifesavers – from the early oar-powered vessels to today’s technology-packed boats, which are now built in-house by the charity; and from the rudimentary cork lifejackets of the 1850s to the full protective kit each crew member is now issued with.



The RNLI’s lifesaving reach and remit has also developed over the course of 200 years. The charity designs and builds its own lifeboats and runs domestic and international water safety programmes.

Today, among the 238 lifeboat stations across Ireland and the UK, 10 operate out of Northern Ireland including two inland stations on Lough Erne at Enniskillen and Carrybridge in county Fermanagh, and eight along the coast at Red Bay, Portrush and Larne in county Antrim and Bangor, Donaghadee, Portaferry, Newcastle and Kilkeel in county Down.


Additionally, the charity provides a seasonal lifeguard service at Downhill, Castlerock, Benone, Whiterocks, Portrush East, Portrush West, Portstewart Strand and Ballycastle on the Causeway Coast and at Cranfield, Tyrella and Murlough in county Down.

While much has changed in 200 years, two things have remained the same – the charity’s dependence on volunteers, who give their time and commitment to save others, and the voluntary contributions from the public which have funded the service for the past two centuries.


RNLI Trustee Paddy McLaughlin, also a volunteer at Red Bay RNLI in Cushendall, pictured with Kevin Allen, Red Bay RNLI Lifeboat Operations Manager.

RNLI Trustee Paddy McLaughlin, also a volunteer at Red Bay RNLI in Cushendall, pictured with Kevin Allen, Red Bay RNLI Lifeboat Operations Manager.


RNLI Trustee Paddy McLaughlin, also a volunteer at Red Bay RNLI in Cushendall says:

"It is an honour and a privilege to see and be a part of this lifesaving organisation as it reaches its bicentenary. For a charity to have survived 200 years based on the time and commitment of volunteers, and the sheer generosity of the public donating to fund it, is truly remarkable. It is through the courage and dedication of its incredible people that the RNLI has survived the tests of time.



"Today, as we mark the bicentenary of the RNLI, we remember the achievements and commitment of all those who have been part of the RNLI family over the past two centuries; we celebrate the world-class lifesaving service we provide today, based on our 200 years of learning, expertise and innovation, and we hope to inspire future generations of lifesavers and supporters who will take the RNLI into its next century and beyond.

"We are immensely grateful to everyone who is involved with the charity here in Northern Ireland – our volunteers, supporters and staff. This is our watch and it is our role to keep our charity safe and secure so it can continue to save lives into the future, as we strive in our vision to save every one."

For further information about the RNLI’s 200th anniversary, visit RNLI.org/200.

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