Penarth Royal Marine Paul 'Woody' Woodland drowned in 'freak accident', inquest hears
Updated 1:12pm Thursday 17th April 2014 in News
AN INQUEST has heard that Penarth-born Royal Marine Paul 'Woody' Woodland drowned during a Special Forces exercise when a large wave capsized their rigid inflatable boat which had been left powerless after both engines had been swamped by the breaking waves.
Commando Paul Woodland was hurled out of the upturned 15 foot long twin engine RIB and he apparently became snagged by his dry suit.
His four comrades on the boat quickly realised he was in trouble and within around 90 seconds they dragged him clear but he was unconscious.
The fatal incident happened in October 2012 but details only emerged at an inquest held at Barnstaple, North Devon, yesterday (April 16).
Following his death his fiancee, Sian Woodland, raised more than £13,000 for Royal Marine charities last year,and has vowed to continue fundraising in his memory.
During the inquest four of his commando comrades gave evidence behind screens, and were only identified as soldiers B, C, D and F.
The Greater Devon coroner Dr Elizabeth Earland said their anonymity was "in deference to requirements of national security".
The men gave graphic accounts of the incident which happened during a surf skills course off Saunton Sands, North Devon, on October 3, 2012.
Soldier C was the coxswain and he and soldier B said both engines became flooded and inoperable by the large breaking waves.
The helmsman said he had not come across engines jamming but both he and soldier B tried ten times to re-start them - but they were unable to and the RIB lost its steering and was being hit broadside by the waves.
Soldier C said the waves were "four to five feet high" and a large wave hit them, capsizing the inflatable and flipped out the five man crew.
He said being under the water "felt like being in a washing machine" before he popped back up to the surface.
He said they were 50-75 metres from the shore and the crew shouted out their number and said 'okay' but there was a pause when they reached number five, who was 31-year-old Paul.
He said:"We were a man down. Soldier B shouted that he was trapped under the boat."
Soldier B said they were wearing dry suits, their own military clothing, helmet and a knife to free themselves if they get snagged, a smoke flare and life jacket which is not inflated.
He said the crew was "in good spirits" and said it was going to be "an enjoyable" training exercise.
Paul, from Penarth, was sat in front of Soldier B who was at the back of the boat and the crew was warned that the waves could be as high as teen feet and "choppy", said soldier D, who said Paul had completed a night time capsize "with no issues".
Soldier B said the the medium sized RIB, known as a MIB, was heading out through breaking waves but the boat was filling with water as it crashed through wave after wave.
After the capsize Soldier B saw Paul's leg sticking out from the sea and he was "kicking" out at the rear of the boat by the engines.
The soldier said Paul was in the water for about "30 seconds" when he grabbed his leg and arm and tried to pull Paul out but he appeared to have been snagged.
He said he "pulled as hard as I could" to free Paul, while another comrade helped to free him.
Soldier B said:"I could see Paul's face was blue."
He said white bubbles and foam was around his nose and mouth and he was dragged on to the RIB and given chest compressions and mouth to mouth while safety jet skis raced to the scene after emergency flares had been launched.
The soldiers said they had been drilled properly and had the right kit and they were all prepared for the training exercise.
Soldier B said:"It was quite an upsetting experience. This was a tragic accident."
He answered a question from the coroner saying there was 'not enough time between waves' to bale the water out of the boat, restart the engines and said paddles to steer would not have been of any use in the surf conditions.
He felt Paul had become snagged saying:"I could not see but I formed the opinion he became snagged between the engines and something on his dry suit."
Soldier F said the exercise was part of a boat handlers course only for Royal Marines, based at Instow in North Devon.
He said this was the first time he had lost a 'student in troop training'
and said losing both engines on the RIB was a 'freak accident'. He said as a result of this incident instructors now went out in the boats with the crews.
Soldier D estimated that Paul was in the water for between 'one minute and 90 seconds' from the time of the capsize to the time he was freed and he had earlier used his hands to try and empty the boat of water.
He grabbed Paul's helmet under the water but was smashed by another wave as he helped to free him and said:"There was nothing more we could have done to save him."
The inquest heard that Paul, who was a strong swimmer, was a 'fit and healthy man' who died from 'immersion in water, drowning'.
He had not suffered any significant injuries but the weight of the boat on top of him and the 'subsequent disorientation resulted in his drowning', medical experts told the inquest.
In a statement Soldier E told the Barnstaple inquest in Devon said there had been capsizes during exercises in the past.
But he said:”It was not what was intended but it may happen.”
He said the two RIBS were to ‘punch through the surf’ but the boats were not competing against each other and there was no time pressure.
The boats were to ride the boats on the back of the waves back to shore.
He said Paul’s RIB had capsized and was upside down and the crew were thrown into the sea.
He said:”In my opinion it was a tragic accident. Nothing more could have been done to help Paul, the incident happened so quickly.”
There was one instructor to every three pupils and the men had been due to return to their base at Poole, Dorset, after the daytime exercise.
Paul was carried to a military ambulance at the beach before an air ambulance flew him to the North Devon Hospital in Barnstaple where he was pronounced dead a few minutes after his arrival.
Lt Col Paul Clark, Royal Marines, said the instructors said the four feet surf conditions on the day were safe.
He said the RIB hit a wave and landed stern first in the trough but the engines were flooded. The boat was then hit again and ended up being capsized when it was hit broadside and the crew was ‘catapulted in to the water’. The men in the water were not able to stand up in the sea at that point.
Col Alan Taylor said the accident was caused by the ‘rare’ failure of both engines as the boat foundered which led to the capsize.
He said there was a ‘lack of appropriate instructor supervision which was an unsafe practice’ and a failure to have paddles available for immediate use.
But he said paddles are helpful only in benign sea conditions and the same applied if the crew jumped in the water from the RIB to act as sea anchors.
The coroner Dr Elizabeth Earland recorded an accidental death conclusion.
She said: "The RIB went into the surf and hit a very large wave, six foot plus.”
She said the swamped boat capsized and Paul and he came trapped by the engines and drowned.