For five years I’ve posted swim advice for the casual swimmers who may take to the water on Christmas Day or over the holiday period. I’m always aware that of the 10,000 people who will take to the water on Christmas Day in Ireland alone, only one or two thousand at best of those will see the post. Most of those swimmers who read the post will be like you and I, already experienced open water swimmers, who have integrated our own experience into our behaviour.
So the hope of posts is that someone, maybe just one person, will read and be safer and better prepared as a consequence. It’s impossible to measure the effect of such a post. And so it’s not possible to be sanguine when someone swims at my local Christmas Day swim having broken one of the fundamental rules of open water, to stay away from the water if they have been drinking. Tragedy was close, and only averted by the lucky presence of an experienced open water swimmer.
Christmas Day 2015 continued the prevailing weather pattern of the previous six weeks in Ireland with torrential overnight rain and strong winds. The roads were fairly flooded on the drive down to the Guillamene and I guessed this would be one of the quieter Christmas swims as the air temperature was also down to six degrees, colder than the previous days. The car park was mostly empty with only a dozen cars, when on a good Christmas Day it will be full. Looking down on the the bay, the reason was obvious. Force six to seven onshore winds blew across the cliff top making the six degree temperature seem even colder and the sea was rough with two metre waves crossing a short messy sea.
I was about fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, though I’d arranged to be there at eleven to swim with my friend and the blog’s most regular commenter, Sam Krohn, home for the holiday. You may not know Sam by name immediately, until I tell you he is the film-maker, swimmer and surfer behind Cave of Light, Cave of Birds. In the last couple of weeks, in the wake of another local coastal accident, which resulted in an unfortunate death , Sam and I had been continuing a conversation of concern to us both:
How do we better educate people about coastal hazards, and the myth of the freak wave so perpetuated by Irish people and media as a way of passing over deaths caused in truth by ignorance of the sea and carelessness around the coast?
Down at the platform six of the regulars were huddled into the one person-sized changing alcove against the wind and rain. Groups of one to three people came, and looked, and left. The Christmas Day swim had been officially called off that morning due to conditions and it had been covered on local radio. This meant there was no Inshore Resuce boat cover for the irregular swimmers. While at least one of the guys had already swam, in general most had decided that they didn’t feel like fighting with it.
On days with surging waves, I don’t throw myself into the water without thinking. I follow my own advice. My first step is to look at the bay from above. On Christmas Day, I even walked out to the edge of the cliff path. Two years previously in 2013 had also been a windy rough day with the swim cancelled. Not as bad as 2015, I had gone for a swim since it had well within my range. In 2015, with the tide near low, I checked the timing between waves and set waves from the platform, and looked at the height and range of the breaking waves on the steps, before deciding that the conditions were fine. For me. I’ll stress that the decision was made, as always, by myself, for myself. A week previous had a day of worse conditions which I equally weighed, and on which I decided that my chance of exiting safely would be lower, so I didn’t swim.
Since it was raining heavily and I was time constrained, I had a quick change, and with strong local swimmer Brendan The Swimming Santa, we set off outward. I chose that direction as the wind coupled with low tide would mean heading into the bay would be even rougher. Brendan, a strong swimmer with whom I hadn’t swam before stayed close to me, relying on my experience in very water, but it was immediately obvious that he was a very capable swimmer.
My short Christmas Day swim duration is always dictated by the fact that I need to get home to continue with the cooking. So we turned just past Newtown Cove and swam back. On the platform and walk to the older steps, I noticed Sam in his yellow swim cap. I took a couple of photos and headed for the steps where Sam was now standing. I initially planned to help Brendan with the timing to exit before me, then deciding he would fare better if he could see me climbing out. Up on the steps though, a distraught Sam and I shook hands and he said “you won’t believe what’s just happened“. And now, the scene set, I’ll hand over to Sam’s account:
“I had been looking forward to this swim for the last couple of weeks. Seeing [Donal] swimming out with Brendan was exhilarating and I quickly decided given [their] head start that I would meet [them] on the way back. A straightforward plan and in rough water that we both love and are familiar with. [Donal’s] Christmas and New Years Day How To Safety Debrief ran with the headline Prepare and Observe. Given that I was prepared and had already been observing the water I was ready to go or so I thought. Always expect the unexpected, the following is my account of a rescue that can only be described as horrific, where a man came within seconds of loosing his life.
Observing the water never stops. It’s called never turning your back on the ocean. The conditions were dangerous for non-swimmers, casual swimmers and the inexperienced who should not have been in the water. The rough conditions would be a challenge for the experienced open water swimmers who train to adapt, train to survive and train to stay alive. It was immediately clear that exiting the water would require timing, commitment and strong swimming. The exit was the crux, the exit was where the vulture lay in wait and from where I noticed a swimmer making his approach. My observation sharpened and two things became clear, two warning shots were fired if you like. Number one that he had no swimming cap and number two that he wasn’t swimming strong and had taken to floating rather than actually swimming. Does it sound too simple? Not in the conditions as they were. No swimming cap was a sure sign of a non-swimmer or a casual swimmer. Someone who just flirted around the edges, someone unfamiliar with the effects of cold water. Floating and maintaining buoyancy at the exit was a sure sign of inexperience where swimming and commitment were the only safe way out. What happened next confirmed as much when his head was pinned hard against the railing by a crashing wave. A crashing wave that an experienced swimmer would have timed and avoided or used to his advantage. With a bear-like grip he managed to hold on before hauling himself out. He then seemed to turn around as if to go back in, what became clear however was that there was another swimmer in the water, his friend. The same situation, no cap and just maintaining buoyancy and I wondered if his exit would be any less dramatic as I made the final adjustments before my swim.
With a crowd now gathered watching the second swimmer’s attempt I decided It would also be a good idea to look on. He was swirling around the exit making no attempt to swim for the railings. This confirmed the inexperience and now dangerous situation that was unfolding before him. A few people next to me said something along the lines of “he is alright, he is okay, he is just enjoying it”, but I knew by the look on his face that he was now in a world of trouble and simply said “he’s not okay he needs help”. [I] ran for the life ring which was wound up to the last knot ( I am forever untangling life rings on my travels, [as] there’s little time when the shit hits the fan to unravel someone’s cleverness,) [but] I had to make do. Out it went and bulls-eye he grabbed and I began pulling him in but something wasn’t right. I could feel little to no tension on the line and wondered why he wasn’t holding on for dear life. He then released and was now being swept over to the small ladder which is where I was now running towards. This situation was going from bad to worse. The ladder in my opinion was a bad place to be as it’s deceptively exposed and unlike the larger steps which were filling creating 4 or 5 seconds of slack in the water the ladder was emptying and sucking violently [Donal’s note: The small ladder is the oldest entry/exit, one I almost never use, and never in rough water, for the reasons Sam points out]. I didn’t like it one bit and again threw out the life ring which he grabbed and with his friend next to me we tried to grab and haul him in, but we were too late. His strength was gone and he was taken again with the next set of waves that came crashing through. How to effect a rescue in these conditions? The very real and daunting prospect of having to enter the water to get him to safety was now becoming real and with conditions as they were the outcome would be uncertain. Exiting from the stairs and ladder would be near impossible with a casualty who was clearly in shock and would put the lives of others at risk of being swept into the sea creating an even bigger problem. Perhaps the only chance would be to take him and rescue swim towards the cliffs where I knew the water was shallower and with relative safety and shelter a distance of 25 meters or so. It would be difficult to swim him the other way against the swell towards the stairs from where he was now located so I knew our best chance would be with the swell and towards the cliffs where the Coast Guard Cliff Rescue or Rescue 117 [Note: local Coast Guard Helicopter which is based just outside Tramore] could winch us out.
In survival you have to be prepared to adapt. When all hell is breaking loose around you it’s vital that decisions are made and if needs be cut loose so that you can effectively move on to improve your chances. If at plan A you then find yourself at Plan Z then you start counting from plan 1 to the end. With the situation now rapidly deteriorating the swimmers life hung in the balance when he was picked up by a wave and flung like a rag doll into the rocks. Hearing the screams from the onlookers behind me I had to watch as the ocean mercilessly sucked him and dragged him beneath the waves into the cauldron of foam beneath. His life flashed before my eyes and he was gone, he was a dead man as I waited for him to surface hoping and hoping he would surface. His body looked lifeless going down head first scraping against the rock he was taken so violently with the heavy flow of backwash. I couldn’t believe this was happening, I knew there were crevasses and caves beneath where he could easily be pinned, should I have gone in beforehand I thought? His friends now-quivering voice beside me pleading with me to go in and help him when as luck would have it he resurfaced in the form of a wave bigger than the first which picked him up and slammed him onto the rocks where his seemingly lifeless body was now sprawled. The back wash hadn’t taken him this time. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth I raced over the railings and rocks to him where he lay face-down, cut to pieces. I knelt down putting my arms under his shoulders and did my best to lift him out. His body was slippery and difficult to grip I was worried I couldn’t get him out in time when dazed he looked up eyes open. At least he’s still conscious I thought but we now had to get off that rock for fear of being swept back into the sea. As he came around he was able to assist with getting out of harm’s way and that’s when it hit me. The putrid foul-smelling stench of alcohol from his breath. I was in total disbelief which then quickly turned to anger. I asked him had he been drinking, and he replied yes that he’d been drinking all day previous. He then wanted to sit down and began thanking me and asking my name. I shouted at him saying “get up that fucking rock we aren’t safe yet”! I can’t describe how angry I was, furious that my life and the lives of others had been put in danger. My last words to him before he was taken by a member of the swimming club were that he should get himself to a hospital. He had cuts and lacerations all over his body, my body was covered in his blood and my own which should never have been spilt for intoxicated bloody idiots. It explained their awkwardness in the water, it explained why the life ring failed to work, it explained their stupid bravado macho which almost killed them, it explained everything. They weren’t Prepared and unlike everyone else they had failed to Observe.
As it turned out it was the last I saw of them. I believe they were taken to the Clubhouse up at the car park for first aid. I hope they are okay, I doubt they realize how dangerous their actions were, and how close to death they came. My mum was with me and completely distressed. She had been screaming at me to not go into the water and ran away when he was taken under by the wave. So my attention was now focused on reassuring her that everything was okay and to Donal and Brendan who were returning from their swim. You guys were a sight for sore eyes I can tell you! My leg was cut up pretty badly with lacerations top to bottom, I could feel the adrenaline wearing off as we made our way home and hit the shower when we did. Donal [and I] often passionately talk about the different and varying scenarios that we could be faced with- this rescue was no exception. It was to say the least, damn well frightening. Even though I took action I do not feel that my actions were great perhaps, because the [guys] were intoxicated. One thing is certain, two minutes earlier and I would have been in the water with [Donal] swimming out, two minutes later and it may have been too late. I guess I’m just happy and relieved that I was able to get to him in time. I will never forget this day, it was to be my first ever Christmas Day Swim which ended up being a Christmas Day Rescue, my first ever and in the place were it all began, the Guillamene.
While the events above were occurring, I was approaching and less than a hundred metres away. But I never realised what was happening, I never knew there was another swimmer in the water, never realised there was a situation in which I could have assisted Sam. Without realising it, I even caught an image of Sam on camera.
Afterwards, I treated the extensive lacerations on Sam’s legs with some blood control spray I keep in my swim box. I reminded Sam’s upset mother that she’d just seen something that should reassure her instead of scare her; that Sam was skilled, experienced and measured in his response. I also think it’s fair to say that their Christmas was somewhat marred by the adrenaline after-shock of the near disaster.
Experienced people involved in, for want of better terms, adventure or extreme sports, are always cognizant of the possibility of something going wrong. Most open water swimming, when carried out in safe conditions, isn’t really an extreme sport. Extremity as a description becomes appropriate when something about the conditions or situation increases the risk. But the goal of any extreme sports person is not to just court risk, not simply to put yourself into dangerous conditions, but through experience and training to understand and minimise the risk.
There are people I trust implicitly around the water. Sam Krohn is one. Because I know he is experienced, and measured in his actions around the water and coast.
Christmas Eve, The day before the above event, in a brief online exchange about my Christmas swim advice, the following occurred:
Commenter>> [Quoting me ]: If you have been drinking alcohol the night before, please don’t swim”>>. “Ima dance with the devil on that one.”
Me >> “Yeah, why would you need any expert advice. I’ve so much macho bullshit and idiocy around water over the years, it’s long lost any ability to impress me.”
Commenter>>”What are the reasons for not drinking the night before a swim?“.
Me>> “Alcohol remains in body for a long time. Even if you feel sober, residual alcohol suppresses the normal vaso-constriction response to cold, leading to early onset hypothermia. Impaired decision-making caused by Alcohol is the leading cause of drowning for swimmers“.
This time, it ended well, when Sam Krohn saved someone’s life. Experience and thought responded to inexperience and idiocy.
Sam and I will still discuss what can be done to improve the message of safety around the coast, of understanding the various factors that determine safety. And we will continue to repeat to people the things they don’t want to hear about safety.
Well done Sam.