LIFEBOAT crews in the south have faced an unprecedented summer of callouts – with a 64 per cent increase in the numbers of rescues compared to the previous year.

After the initial pandemic travel restrictions were eased, tens of thousands of people headed to the coast.

In Bournemouth during one heatwave weekend in June BCP Council was forced to declare a major incident such were the numbers packing beaches.

In a region covering 31 RNLI lifeboat stations, from the Thames to Swanage, by far the biggest increase from June to August were rescues including inflatables.

RNLI water safety lead for the south east, Guy Addington, said the figures highlighted the dangers inflatables can pose at the coast and urged people to leave them at home in the future:

He said: "Inflatables can be great fun, but they are not designed for the beach as it’s easy to get swept out to sea.

"As these figures demonstrate, inflatables are one of the most common reasons our lifeboat crews are called to action during the summer months.

"They are particularly dangerous when there are strong offshore winds and there were a number of incidents around the south east this summer where people, in some cases children, suddenly found themselves being swept hundreds of metres offshore.

"Were it not for our lifeboat crews responding so quickly some of these incidents could easily have resulted in a tragedy. The best place to enjoy inflatables is in an enclosed area such as a swimming pool."

In August, when light was fading, a teenage girl and her father were saved from drowning half a mile off Bournemouth Pier, after becoming separated from their inflatable dinghy as night approached. They had been in the water for 40 minutes by the time rescuers were able to get to them around 10pm.

Poole RNLI volunteer helm Dave Riley said the pair were "extremely lucky" and that given another ten minutes "it could have been a very different outcome."

In the south east region, during the same summer period this year, the RNLI launched 37 times, assisting 89 people, who had got into difficulty on inflatables.

This compared with 20 launches and 26 people rescued the previous summer, so represented a 211.1per cent increase.

The second biggest reason for lifeboat launches was to waterside activities, including paddling, beach combing, playing games, horse riding and cycling.

The growing popularity of paddleboards is also reflected in the summer figures, with 12 launches and 12 people assisted – an increase on the previous year when there were eight launched and four people helped.

Guy said: "Often lifeboat crews are launched to inflatables drifting out to sea because of fears there could be people in the water.

"Extensive searches are often carried out only to discover the toys have been blown off the beach.

"This could mean the lifeboat crew are unable to respond to other, perhaps more serious, incidents’.

‘With Christmas just a month away we’d urge anyone considering buying their loved one an inflatable to put safety first and make it clear it’s not to be used on the coast."

Meanwhile, RNLI head of water safety Gareth Morrison, said: ‘Our volunteer crews have been on call throughout the pandemic. This year, they faced a summer like no other.

"When lockdown restrictions eased, we saw people flock to the beaches to enjoy our coastlines instead of holidaying abroad.

"But that resulted in a huge number of people getting into difficulty around our coasts, with our lifesavers facing an incredibly busy summer.

"If you find yourself in trouble at the coast this winter, call 999 and ask for the coastguard."