Swimmer drowned after drinking during picnic on beach near Sidmouth

Devon County Hall in Exeter.

Devon County Hall in Exeter. - Credit: Archant

A swimmer drowned after a summer picnic on a beach near Sidmouth, a coroner’s court has heard.

James Gerard Kearns, also known as Jerry, died after being pulled from the water some 300 metres off Weston Beach on July 24 2018.

An inquest at Exeter’s County Hall heard on Monday (January 21) the 66-year-old had been with his wife and dog enjoying a picnic before going for a swim.

Senior coroner Philip Spinney recorded a verdict of accidental death by drowning, saying alcohol had ‘been a factor’.

The court heard the couple, who had been married since 1986, had stopped at Waitrose to pick up food, a bottle of wine and a Peroni beer, and had lunch around 1pm.

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Mr Kearns took a nap for half an hour before the couple went for a swim.

His wife Frances said in a statement that she remained in the shallow water with their dog while he swam out to an area where three men were swimming.

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She said: “He was a good swimmer. He was twice as far out as he would usually be. They [the men] were getting no response.

“I couldn’t see Jerry fully. One of the men said he was on his back which they thought was a good sign. He might have been exhausted and went on his back to stay safe.”

The court heard that one of the men tried to swim out to Mr Kearns but struggled due to the water conditions. Mrs Kearns called the coastguard.

Guy Bennett, from Sidmouth Lifeboat, in a statement to the court, said the lifeboat was launched shortly before 4pm after reports of a swimmer in difficulty.

The crew arrived three or four minutes after the call and saw people signalling to where Mr Kearns was.

He said: “This helped us to find the man quicker. The man in the water was not breathing and was blue in colour.”

Crews began CPR on Mr Kearns aboard the lifeboat and transported him to Sidmouth beach where paramedics from land and air ambulance had been called to meet them.

Mr Kearns was pronounced dead at the scene at 5.11pm.

A toxicology report confirmed high levels of alcohol in Mr Kearns system at the time of his death - measuring 180 milligrams in 100 millilitres of blood.

Mr Spinney said in his conclusion: “The alcohol had been a factor in his drowning.

“He was a good swimmer and he found himself in difficulty on July 24. We heard the sea was choppy with two feet high waves.

“This was an accidental death.”

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