A COURAGEOUS lifeboat crew plunged into raging waves to try and find a missing surfer during one of the most severe storms of recent years.

The incredible actions of the Hastings RNLI team during Storm Ciara in February were shown on BBC show Saving Lives at Sea this week.

Torrential rain battered the Sussex coast as 90mph winds whipped through the county, felling trees and causing chaos on the roads on the weekend of February 9.

The Argus: The Hastings Lifeboat Credit: Rob CarronThe Hastings Lifeboat Credit: Rob Carron

The Met Office issued a blanket warning for "damaging and disruptive" winds across the area, with people advised to stay indoors.

Hastings Lifeboat coxswain mechanic Andy Doe said: "The storm had been all over the news and I knew before I got out of bed that it was going to be an awful day.

"You could hear it howling around the house."

Fellow crew member Ashley White revealed his wife had given birth just two weeks before, and he was on paternity leave as a result.

"I'd seen how bad the conditions were and thought thatif we got a tasking today then it's going to take all of us," he said.

Recognising this, he switched his pager on just hours before the dramatic rescue.

A warning was issued to people on the coast, urging them not to venture into the dangerous, churning sea.

But, despite this, one surfer was seen at Rock-a-Nore beach, near Hastings, diving into the waves from a jetty.

The moment the 15ft waves swept over him was captured on film, with the current separating him from his board.

The Argus: The coastguard helicopter was called and a coastline search was also launchedThe coastguard helicopter was called and a coastline search was also launched

The RNLI were alerted and finance manager Mark Tewkesbury (also known as Tewks) was faced with the unenviable task of picking a crew for the dangerous operation.

"I wanted to be very clear with people that we were going out into some of the worst weather that they are ever likely to experience, and it was going to be a very dangerous situation," he said.

But there was no doubt in the mind of Ashley White.

"For me it was (a decision made) without hesitation," he said.

"This is what we train for. There's someone in difficulty out there who needs our help. We're going to go to them."

The boat launched with six crew members on board.

"It can be both intimidating and disorienting when the waves are bigger than the boat," navigator Andy Roe explained.

Friends of the surfer, named as Stu, used his phone to call his partner, Jen.

When they told her he was missing, she broke down in tears. She was seven months pregnant at the time.

"I just remember rubbing my tummy and thinking, 'this can't be happening, he has to meet our baby'."

The search continued for more than an hour, with Stu now having been in the water for 90 minutes.

The lifeboat crew became concerned he would be suffering from hypothermia or unconscious.

Some feared for the worst, and the huge waves made search efforts near-impossible.

As hope faded, the lifeboat crew was stood down by the coastguard.

But, suddenly, a voice came over the radio. The surfer had been found.

He had washed up on a beach about six miles away after more than three hours in the water, and was taken to hospital by helicopter.

The Hastings crews cheered and flung celebratory fists in the air.

"He's one lucky ****** isn't he?," one crew member can be heard saying in audio from the boat shared by the BBC.

Stu was able to speak to his partner Jen over the phone to let her know that he was back on dry land, alive.

Jen said: "Eventually the lady who was keeping me updated came through and she said, 'I've got somebody who needs to speak to you'.

"She passed the phone to me and it was Stu's little voice saying, 'hello'.

"The rain was so bad we couldn't hear each other very well but I just remember crying in a flood of relief that he was on the other end of that telephone." 

Stu said he had been surfing for about an hour when he decided to leap from the jetty to get one more "good wave under my belt".

But he soon felt the current pulling him back, and the water quickly ripped his surfboard from underneath him.

The leash attaching him to the board snapped.

Stu did not believe the lifeboat would launch, so had planned to swim out to sea if anything went wrong and find a more sheltered area of the coast to come ashore.

After more than three hours in the water, he found a spot at Winchelsea. But he was in need of treatment, and was taken to hospital in a helicopter to be given fluids.

Hastings Lifeboat crew member Ashley White said: "Perhaps he (Stu) has learned something from it, I think he has.

"But I would never judge anyone who goes in the water, it's up to them what they do.

"I'm just there to go out and get them out of a situation that they may not have foreseen."

But the crew's job was not done. They had to try and return to safety by landing their boat back on the beach.

It had to approach the shore at speed to make the landing, but the waves sapped the power from the boat as it entered more shallow water.

As this happened, the surging water lifted the boat up and flipped it on to its side, but the self-righting vessel was able to recover.

Ashley White said: "I thought I was facing the worst, and that I wouldn't get to see my little girl again.

"It's not a nice feeling, that this might be the end."

They were forced to make their way to Eastbourne, making the gruelling two-hour journey to the safer landing spot.

"We went into the boathouse," Andy Roe said.

"And I've never been so pleased to have a cup of tea."

Stu said there was a huge backlash on social media after videos of his actions were posted online.

He said he did not think lifeboat crews would launch in those conditions, but was "so thankful"to the crew that did.

"It's amazing to think that they would put themselves in that position to come out and look for someone," he said.

"It must have been a big call for them to have to make so, to the whole crew down there in Hastings, thank you."