Dave’s bowing out after his final flight

Winch operator Dave Peel
Winch operator Dave Peel

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Looking down from above, Dave Peel was watching a 27-foot yacht slowly sinking into the waves of the Solent.

The four people on board were desperately clinging on to the rigging as waves and the wind crashed against them.

Aboard a search and rescue helicopter, Dave slowly lowered his friend and colleague, Simon O’Mahony, into the chaos below.

With the sails swinging madly, he had to lift Simon over the rigging, before lowering him into the sea to prevent him from getting entangled.

As the situation got steadily worse, he even had to consider cutting his friend from the wire, in case it pulled the whole helicopter down and killed them all.

Thankfully, all the people aboard the vessel were rescued.

But it sounds more like a sequence from a blockbuster action movie than the working day of a grandad who has just retired.

With many more rescues under his belt, Dave wasn’t short of experiences to write about when he decided to publish his own book, On The Wire.

When he started writing, it was only meant to be a memoir of his time as a search and rescue air crewman for his family.

But what began as a hobby soon became a way to cope during a difficult time in his life.

When Dave’s wife Margaret was taken to hospital in May 1997 after collapsing at their home in Lee-on-the-Solent, the future looked bleak.

A scan revealed that she’d suffered a particularly nasty cerebral haemorrhage and she had to be put in an induced coma while the family were warned she might not pull through.

Thankfully, in time, Margaret began to recover but the experience had taken its toll on her health and Dave began to write.

‘My wife had a cerebral haemorrhage which left her quite disabled,’ he explains.

‘So for the first few years it was difficult to get out.’

In the book, Dave adds: ‘I had to face the biggest challenge of my life. It was quite unexpected and a huge shock.

‘This account, although nothing to do with my work, was positively life-changing. I mention it because aspects of my job and the people I work with helped me get through this and the change in lifestyle is almost certainly the reason I am writing this memoir.’

As the book began to take shape, Dave’s family and friends encouraged him to get it published.

‘I self-published it because I wanted it all in my words really, from my point of view,’ he adds.

‘The people that helped proof read it and friends said I should publish it, and I did it that way.’

After 22 years with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Dave has been involved in thousands of rescue missions and saved countless lives.

As part of the Solent Coastguard team he’s provided support during many major incidents, including the Gloucestershire floods in 2007.

And the 65-year-old was awarded the Billy Deacon Search and Rescue (SAR) Memorial Trophy for the particularly perilous rescue he attended with Simon in April 2010.

The award is for winchmen and winch operators from the Coastguard, RAF and Royal Navy and recognises particularly exceptional service.

‘It was just a job that was particularly difficult because the vessel was just sliding about the surface of the vessel and it was stuck on a sand bank, making it nearly impossible to do anything,’ remembers Dave.

‘We just about managed in that particular situation.

‘The pilot couldn’t see anything so he had to take his guidance from me, which didn’t help anything.’

Winning the award meant something in particular to Dave.

‘Billy Deacon was actually a friend of mine, from when I started years ago,’ he explains.

‘He was a winchman in 1997 and he lost his life saving 10 seaman, that’s why the award was named after him.

‘He’d just got the last person on to the aircraft, everything had been going wrong that day, and a wave took him over the side.

‘For me it’s incredible being his friend and now I’m a recipient of his award.’

Dave’s career has spanned more than five decades as he joined the Royal Navy in 1961 when he was just 15.

After 11 years he transferred to become a search and rescue diver.

But it wasn’t until 1988 when he was selected for a contract with the Coastguard and moved to Lee-on-the-Solent as an operator and winchman.

Now he’s decided it’s time to retire and is looking forward to spending more time with his daughter, Kerry and her two children Michael, 21, and Jessica, 15.

He was supposed to retire last year – but asked to stay on.

Honest with his experiences, the book covers the mistakes made in the early days when he joined the navy, the apprehension of going out on jobs, dealing with incidents when things went wrong and the rewarding feeling of saving causalities in successful rescues.

Working eight to 10 shifts a month, the crew have to do 24-hour shifts from 1pm until 1pm the following day.

Dave says: ‘We go home at night at 10pm and then we have to be on call throughout the night just in case. That’s why we have to live within 15 minutes of the base. Then we’re back in at eight in the morning just in case. It takes us minutes to get in the air if there’s a call.’

Waiting on call at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency base at Daedalus, Dave and his team could be faced with all sorts of call-outs.

‘It’s just a job that I love,’ he adds.

‘I mean, there’ve been a lot of tough jobs, such as ones involving cliffs when people have been seriously injured.

‘It’s difficult making decisions in those situations.’

He adds: ‘Sometimes you’re apprehensive, but it’s been my job and I’ve enjoy it. It’s very rewarding.

‘When you’re taking people from a really hostile situation, that’s why you do it. I’ll definitely miss it.’

Thinking about what retirement will bring, Dave says: ‘I’m basically a full-time carer for my wife. But we are planning to go on a cruise in the summer.’

n On The Wire is published by Author House, priced £10.80 for soft cover and £14.90 for hardback.