Dancing With The Devil – A Christmas Day Swim Rescue

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.

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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?

Aidan, Jimmy, Brian, Dennis, & Alan in alcove Christmas swim 20140601_014255.resized

Guillamene regulars sheltering. From left, Jimmy, Dennis, Aidan, Brian with Alan hidden the depth of the alcove

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.

Swiming Santa Brendan 20140601_020224.resized

Not water for the inexperienced or hungover. Swimming Santa Brendan powers through.

 

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.

Christmas Day swim 2015. Sam Krohn rescues swimmer 20140601_020205.resized

Sam Krohn can be seen in the bottom right evacuating the rescued swimmer. This photo was taken to given some idea of the conditions. The ladder Brendan & I used is on the bottom left, below the steps. 

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.

 

 

 

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12 thoughts on “Dancing With The Devil – A Christmas Day Swim Rescue

  1. Pingback: How To: Advice for Christmas or New Year swimming in cold water for beginner or casual open water swimmers – What would Santa Do? | LoneSwimmer

  2. Pingback: How To: Essential Skills For Every Open Water Swimmer | tonicsmoothies

  3. Terrifying idiocy. That is one idiot that was lucky Sam was on the deck.

    In 38 years of swimming, I’ve never swum with alcohol in my system. I have too much respect for the damage the water can do to me at will.

    Thanks for sharing

    Dougie

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  4. Donal, if Sam hadn’t been there and the intoxicated gentleman had drowned we would have been inundated with headlines about how dangerous open water swimming is. No doubt the reports on the incident would say how reckless and irresponsible you are for swimming in such conditions, thereby encouraging other people to do the same. There might even have been attempts to attach some of the blame for the death to you. Those of us who swim know this not to be the case but unfortunately those who most need your advice don’t bother to read it. I’m so glad this story had a good ending and I hope it serves as a warning to anyone else tempted to swim while drunk.

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    • Thanks Simon, & Happy New Year.

      I’ve thought about that a couple of times, being reckless and as a consequence the potential accusation of misleading of others less experienced.

      Last Sunday the postponed official Christmas Swim was held. Conditions deteriorated after about 30 minutes, around when I got there. Two people had already been pulled from the water, and the rest of the swim cancelled. So I guess there are a couple of points:

      1. It happens regardless of whether I’m there or not.
      2. The other is a more free will/personal responsibility view. Why should I (or any of us experienced swimmers) sacrifice the almost two decades of learning and experience of the water that I’ve built up in order to be able to do what I do, just because others don’t do the same? What then would the point of any of us building skills and experience?

      Certainly there was outcry here about 6 weeks ago when people were filmed swimming in Galway during a big storm. I took one look at the much discussed and shared video and saw what the non-swimmers didn’t see: People with experience jumping into an onshore wind where the worse that could happen would be they’d blown onto a sandy flat & even largely protected beach.

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      • I had been holding back on this one. Simon you really got me thinking about the points you raised so cheers for that!

        Donal – I’m so glad you mentioned the ‘idiotic’ swimmers that ‘were spotted in the water’ here in Galway. I know RTE and Galway City Council had the best of intentions but they missed the point entirely. They also surprisingly generated something near 5 Million you tube hits with the live weather broadcast that drew everyones attention to the swimmers.

        The much discussed video of the swimmers has had people crying out saying they were reckless, stupid, irresponsible putting emergency services and peoples lives at risk, they could have been swept out to sea to name but a few. It just goes to show how ill informed and gullible people are. So frustrating knowing that as you said this swim location in Galway is protected with little to no dangerous hazards. What struck me was where they exited which indicated that the conditions were absolutely manageable for their ability! They did not make use of available stairs or ladders of which there are numerous options available they just chose the quickest and probably safest way out. They also made very good use of the buddy system both during the swim and during the exit. By the length of the video its clear they weren’t hanging around for hypothermia either. They also at least had some level of support and supervision from changing platforms.

        It’s a shame our rescue on Christmas Day was not seen or talked about by 5 million people. Because therein lies the real idiocy of people who have not grasped what personal responsibility means. In Australia we coined the phrase and call them BLOODY IDIOTS. ‘If you drink and drive your a bloody idiot’ these hard hitting commercials have been around for years now. People drink and drive not because the rest of us are driving around in our cars responsibly but because they are as I said BLOODY IDIOTS and have no self respect for themselves or the lives of others. They are irresponsible in their actions.

        I think our friends who were caught down at the Guillamene on Christmas Day firstly;

        1. Were familiar with and knew the location.
        2. Had probable rough water exposure in the past.
        3. Overestimated their personal ability.
        4. Were overconfident in each others company.
        5. Were oblivious to the effects of alcohol on swimming and cold water.
        6. Made serious errors in judgment as a result of all of the above.

        There is often a well worn path that leads to disaster and these lads walked to the very edge. Sure the news would likely have condemned Donal if tragedy had struck. But Donal is not a lifeguard, he is not a surf lifesaver he is just a swimmer. He does not wake up in the morning to drive down to the beach to patrol the water to then put himself at risk to save people and he’d have missed those lads as we all would have in the blink of an eye. We were just lucky that a member of the community arrived when he did and saw the danger.

        Had the scenario of the news laying the blame on us played out then I’m sure a quick call to Surf Rescue Australia would have set the record straight ”WHOS FRONTLINE SURF LIFESAVERS, LIFEGUARDS AND SUPPORT OPERATIONS GROUPS PERFORMED 12,690 RESCUES, 42,424 FIRST AID TREATMENTS AND 1,255,090 PREVENTATIVE ACTIONS IN 2014/2015.” In other words if they are going in they are going in regardless. If you want at the very least to prevent them from going in and taking ‘unnecessary journeys’ then you need to first strengthen the community awareness on coastal water safety. Strong community awareness strong coastal safety.

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  5. Many thanks, lone swimmer and Sam, for your gripping and very instructive post. I have been reading your blog for around a year now and have never sent in a comment, but I hope it’s not too late to say how much I enjoy it and how much I have learned from it. This message goes to show how important it is to follow your advice, especially for occasional or first-ever cold water swimmers, but also points out the unfortunate fact that these people are the least likely to have consulted advice from you and other reliable sources beforehand. This is especially the case with supposedly ‘macho’ swimmers. I was swimming off the west coast of Sweden (the islands off Goteborg) in late September and saw a group of young lads who were thinking of jumping in. I saw that they had a six-pack or two of beer with them. Fortunately, I was able to persuade them that it was not a good idea if they were not used to open water swimming (it was not that cold – probably around 15 degrees – but no doubt colder than they were used to.) But what if they hadn’t listened and just jumped in and one of them had hurt himself? It’s very lucky that your friend Sam was on the spot on this occasion, but it seems to me that it would be a good idea if all special Christmas/New Year swimming events gave official advice including your top points on festive swims for those who haven’t don’t them before. By the way, I have taken part already in one festive swim, at the new Kings Cross pond, on 5 December, when it was 7 degrees, and am about to take part in a New Year’s day swim at my local outdoor pool when I expect it will be 6 degrees. All the best to you and other readers for a happy new year!
    Rebecca

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  6. Holy shite lads, that’s a fearsome tale. Fair play to your friend for doing what he did and feck those eejits for their stupidity. I’ll be passing this one on to some swimming friends here in Melbourne.
    Mid-summer here so water a completely different kettle of fish – I was in for an evening swim a few hours ago and it was a barely credible 21 degrees! Oh, the hardship…

    Safe swimming and a very happy new year to you.

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  7. Well done Sam. I remember watching you go for a swim on a ‘relatively ‘calm day and feeling the adrenalin and fear from the safety of the platform – and I was just an observer.
    Cannot imagine even experienced swimmers entering this boiling brew. The stupidity of going in via Dutch courage and putting others at risk is beyond belief. Thank goodness you were there Sam, I am so relieved that all ended well.

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