How Yorkshire lifeboats were involved in the search for 'Canoe Man' John Darwin

The story of John Darwin and his wife Anne is currently gripping the nation with ITV's four-part drama.

By Steve Bambridge
Tuesday, 19th April 2022, 3:25 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th April 2022, 3:44 pm

The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe, written by Chris Lang, award-winning screenwriter of the TV drama Unforgotten and Netflix’s The Hook-up Plan, stars Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan.

It began on Easter Sunday and is on for four consecutive nights on ITV.

Now, lifeboat volunteers on the Yorkshire Coast have recalled the massive search involved in trying to find the hoaxer John Darwin.

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Eddie Marsan as John Darwin and Monica Dolan as Anne Darwin in The Thief His Wife And The Canoe. Photo: ITV

Darwin was, for all anyone knew, seen alive for the last time on March 21, 2002. He paddled out to sea in his canoe near his home in Seaton Carew, just south of Hartlepool, and disappeared.

Failing to arrive at work later that day, Darwin was reported missing, prompting a massive sea search.

All that was found was a double-ended paddle and the wreckage of his red canoe: the man himself was nowhere to be seen, declared legally dead. That is until he walked into a London police station five years later and, feigning amnesia, announced: “I think I am a missing person.”

The two Redcar lifeboats. Photo: RNLI

Anne Darwin, who was in on the lie, had fraudulently claimed hundreds of thousands of pounds in life insurance, pension and mortgage payouts, using it to clear debts and avoid imminent bankruptcy.

That sea search in March 2002 began at 1.19am when pagers for the volunteer crew at Redcar RNLI went off.

It was the signal for the start of what turned into a massive search. The task was to look for a man who had left Seaton Carew beach at 8am the previous morning in a canoe.

Redcar RNLI along with lifeboats from Hartlepool, Teesmouth and Staithes were assigned areas to search by the Coastguard and set about their tasks in the dark.

Sea conditions were calm. Both Redcar lifeboats were tasked with searching the area between North Gare and Staithes and 2.5 miles out to sea.

The initial search lasted until 2.30pm that day with the lifeboats searching at sea while other members of the volunteer crew carried out an extensive search along the beach between Redcar and South Gare. Nothing was found that could be linked to the missing person.

On 29 March 2002 both Redcar Lifeboats were launched. This time it was in response to a report that a damaged kayak had been spotted near to Teesdock. The area was searched but once more nothing was found.

The following day Redcar RNLI launched again. A spring tide and low water meant that a more detailed search around the piers and jetties of the river Tees could be carried out. A damaged kayak was recovered from underneath a pier at South Bank and handed over to the Police. The search terminated at 1.30pm that day, 30 March 2002.

Mike Picknett, who was Senior Helm during the search for John Darwin and is now Lifeboat Operations Manager at Redcar RNLI, said: 'This was a very unusual shout for the RNLI. We found no trace of John Darwin and once the search was called off, we assumed that he had drowned.

"We were astounded when he turned up all those years later. When I look back at what happened I am fascinated by the whole story, but at the time our focus was on finding a missing person.

"Our primary aim is to save lives at sea and prevent people from drowning. If we are told someone is missing off our coast, we will do all we can to help find them. It’s what we do."