A major rescue operation was launched off the Sussex coast last night after a sudden violent squall swept surfers out to sea.

One kite-surfer told how he thought he was going to die as a strong gust of wind caught his canopy and carried him 100ft into the air.

Several surfers spent more than an hour in the water trying to struggle back to shore as lifeboatmen raced to the scene.

Jez Jones, 27, of North Drive, Angmering, said: "I must have been 100ft up in the air and thought I was going to die. I just fell out of the sky and hit the Jez was kite-surfing with six friends at Worthing when the wind switched direction without warning from a south-westerly onshore breeze to an offshore gale.

Rob Hallett, 33, a special needs teacher at Highdown School in Worthing, sprained his knee as the squall carried him several hundred yards over the beach.

He watched from a beach hut in Marine Crescent, Goring, as his friend, Wayne Mortiboys, 32, of Offington Lane, Worthing, struggled for more than an hour in the sea until he was picked up by Littlehampton offshore lifeboat.

Wayne, who escaped injury, said: "We saw a black cloud coming in and all of a sudden it started to howl.

"I saw people on the beach being lifted 20ft into the air and I just let go of my kite."

Windsurfer Kenny Gray, 41, of Wilmington Close, Crawley, who was rescued by lifeboatmen from the sea opposite Sea Lane Cafe, Goring, said: "I thought it was a tornado."

Coastguards said the squall, which struck Worthing at about 5.45pm, swept along the coast from Hampshire to Sussex, sparking a series of rescues.

The crew from Shoreham lifeboat attended two incidents, while Brighton lifeboat was summoned to the West Pier area to check for surfers in trouble.

Dan Cusse, 29, of Western Road, Brighton, and his friend, Alan Draycott, 29, were kayaking near the West Pier at about 7pm when they found a windsurfer in trouble.

Mr Draycott said: "He was really tired. Every time he tried to come in he was just being pushed further east."