Seven people, including five children, were rescued from the River Arun after their speedboat sank outside the coastguard office.
Two coastguard officers were on station when they observed a boat become swamped with water, leaving seven people in the river. They requested the launch of a lifeboat at 4.37pm on Sunday, August 21.
A coastguard spokesperson confirmed that two lifeboats entered the water to rescue the boat occupants and the ambulance service was called for two casualties.
Danny Clark, 67, from Rustington, who has been a fisherman in the area for 40 years, witnessed the incident.
He said: “It was really serious, it could have been a tragedy.
“I was surfing with my son at West beach, it was a lovely day, when we saw this speedboat come out of the harbour. “At the first wave it nosedived and the second wave swamped it. It lost power and sunk immediately.
“Everyone aboard was in the water and were swept out to sea. They tried to get to the harbour wall at the West works, but the sea was washing them back into the river.”
The volunteer crew at the RNLI lifeboat station launched Littlehampton’s Atlantic 85 lifeboat, Renée Sherma, after being called by the coastguards.
The RNLI lifeguards also launched a boat to the scene and recovered six of the seven people from the water.
Mr Clark said: “You’ve got to commend the lifeguards. It was fantastic what they did, they did a really good job.
“They showed great skill- it was a dangerous and very rough sea and it could’ve gone either way.
“But they got the people out of the water and into their boats.”
The seventh occupant of the boat, a girl who Mr Clark estimates was about 10 years old, had drifted away from the others and was hanging onto the harbour wall, a barnacle encrusted structure at the west side of the harbour entrance.
Mr Clark’s son, 34-year-old George Clark, a qualified rescue diver, swam out to help her.
“He managed to get a hold of her and was protecting her from the sea. She was hysterical, screaming and bleeding along her arm. To be honest, my son saved her life,” Mr Clark said.
He said two lifeguards paddled out on boards and waited with them, until a lifeboat came and pulled her aboard five to ten minutes later.
She and the other survivors were attended to by the ambulance service at the lifeboat station.
Mr Clark said: “It just shows the importance of life jackets- they saved everyone’s lives. The current is so dangerous, they could’ve been swept out to sea.”
Peter Adams, who was staying with a friend in Rustington, also witnessed the incident when he was walking along the coast.
He said: “The water can get pretty rough around there.
“Had the beach lifeguards not responded so quickly, it could have been very serious.”
Nick White, Lifeboat Operations Manager at RBLI Littlehampton Lifeboat Station, said: “Thankfully there were no serious injuries, and the job was a great example of co-operation between our volunteer lifeboat crew, RNLI lifeguards and the Littlehampton coastguard rescue team.
“Crucially, two surfers were first to reach the girl and support her until help arrived.
“We’d like to offer our thanks to both of them.”
The partially submerged boat, which had been drifting towards Rustington, was recovered by the Littlehampton lifeboat and the D-Class inshore lifeboat Ray of Hope.
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