Sea front in AberystwythThe sea is a fickle and dangerous mistress and often underestimated. Last night a man lost his life in Aberystwyth, despite our best attempts to save him.

Sean and I had been away all weekend, travelling down to London to see a most dissappointing Mac Expo. I was exhausted having driven all weekend and on Sunday afternoon headed back to Aber with Sean. We were sat in his room each of us geeking away on our laptops when the fire alarm went off. Grumbling, we kicked our shoes on and I suggested we grab coats as it was cold outside. I grabbed my keys and mobile and we headed out. Now Sean lives in a block on the landward-side of the complex, with a courtyard and another building between him and the seafront. Beyond that building is a small road and a wide pavement before the sea wall and beach.

We made our way out to the fire evacuation point on the seafront and were told that there was a gas leak in one of the buildings and that it would be some time before we could go back in. With the wind blowing and the spray from the waves making us wet, we jumped into my car which was parked on the seafront to try and keep warm.

There is a look that people get on their faces when Something Bad happens. It’s a panicked look that means that they’re scared and that somethign has gone badly wrong. They look for someone with more authority than them to try and offload this problem at the earliest opportunity. It was this kind of look that the young lad had on his face when he approached the fire wardens stood on the seafront. Waving his arms frantically, he said something I didn’t catch over the radio, but his meaning was obvious. Sean jumped out as I turned the car off and ran after them, quickly identifying himself as a police officer. I looked over, confused until I saw Sean frantically waving at me. Whatever it was, this wasn’t good.

I ran over to where Sean was and asked what the problem was – someone was in the water. I looked out at the black waters and swung into action. Fire wardens were running alongside us and I frantically scanned the water looking for the young man. When we reached the spot where he went in I looked over the edge and to my utter horror, I saw a leg sticking up in the water. I could see one leg, from the knee down, sticking up in the air and trapped between two boulders. The area in between the boulders was full of water and the waves crashed over him submerging the leg.

I didn’t even think. I knew instantly that he had about three minutes before he ran out of air and died. I had Sean run and get my kit from the car, I told the wardens to call 999 and get an ambulance and coastguard. I knew I had my mountaineering kit and about 30m of 9mm prussic cord. I looked over the edge and realised there and then that the rope wouldn’t hold my weight, his weight and the force of the water and also that I had nothing to climb on so I’d need people to pull us up if I went over the edge. I ran back towards Sean and grabbed my kit as the ambulance pulled up. I tied myself to the rope and ran to the nearest steps, 100m down the beach. Sean grabbed a life buoy from the fence and I headed down, giving Sean what was probably unnecessary instructions to make sure I didn’t get washed out.

I reached the bottom of the steps and jumped down onto the shingle beach. The first wave washed up to my chest and I gasped as the cold sapped the strength from me. I clambered over the boulders, hanging on when the waves washed over me. I’d made it about 15m down the beach when The Wave hit me. It was big, and picked me up. For a moment I lost my grip and was underwater, reaching out and finding nothing but water under my feet and at the ends of my arms. When the wave washed out again, it dropped me pretty much back where I’d been, in a small gab between two large rocks. I gasped for air and looked around and I made a simple decision. There was no way I was going to reach him with both of us alive – most likely outcome was that the coastguard would pull two bodies from the sea if I carried on. I waved and shouted at the crew above me on the sea wall and started back.

I rounded the corner at the bottom of the steps and looked at the steps – there was a welcome sight, a policeman, waiting to help me. I scrambled over boulders thinking that this was getting harder and harder and I slipped between two big boulders just as a big wave smashed me around again. I’d hardly caught my breath to lift a leg over the next boulder when two more waves smashed me against the sea wall. I was already exhausted and I gave myself a mental kick in the arse. If I could get onto this boulder there was a huge boulder next to the bottom of the steps. Jump onto that one and it was two paces to the steps. I looked at the sea with smaller waves rushing towards me and decided to go for it. There was a space between the big boulder and the sea wall that I knew if I ended up in there I’d be screwed.

Someone was watching over me – as I made what felt like a herculean effort to scramble onto this chest-high boulder the waves seems to pause for a moment and I quickly hopped over the remaining few metres onto the steps. Scrambling up as quick as I could, the next wave crashed against the steps, washing over the bottom ones.

I breathed. I spat out a mouthful of grit and salt water and staggered over to the wall where I sat down and tried to catch my breath. A blanket appeared from the ambulance and firemen brought me water to wash my mouth out to get rid of the salt water. A policeman appeared and started talking to me as I willed my heart to slow down. Strangely warm, I watched as the coastguard stood around, watching the waves. I realised why they weren’t rushing to help – it was futile. Looking over the edge at that point and knowing what I’d just been through anyone down there would be dead within minutes – including any rescuers. With no hope of rescue, they would wait it out until they could recover the body.

I got changed and stood around, watching everyone as they waited for the tide to recede a little. Chatting to the coastguard they were grateful for my efforts, though I’m sure there was quite a few shaken heads in there wondering how stupid I was. Frankly, it was a thought that had occurred to me too. One of them turned to me as I described my ordeal – “I know, it’s a difficult decision to have to turn back when you know they’re dying.” I thought about it for a second. “Normally, I’d agree,” I said. “In this case though, it was an easy decision.” Glad that my drive for self-preservation was intact, Sean and I watched some more before heading inside. There was no rush now, the young man would wait for them and they’d wait for the sea.

4 Responses to “Snatched from our grasp…”

  1. James says:

    Wow… had read about this in the news this morning but had no idea that you’d been involved. Am glad you’re okay.

  2. Ingvar says:

    Now, that is something I (unfortunately) can relate to. In my case, I’m not prone to randomly run into the sea to snatch someone from certain DOOOM but I do find myself interposing my body to tsop two or more parties inflicting bodily harm to each other (see LJ entries passim). I usually don’t think about it as much in advance as I could do (and by that I mean “the few moments that passes from spotting trouble” to “find self interposed to minimise bodily harm”, not cogitation that happens safely removed in time and space).

    I still don’t know why, apart from a distinct “no, you are doing bad, stop, NOW!” gut feeling. I suppose you are feeling something similar (“no, this is harmful, I can make a difference, ACT!”, perhaps) on a deep, visceral level.

  3. Mark M says:

    glad you are ok

    now for the bollocking – you ficking idiot. All those years training and you let the red mist come down and take control. consider yourself having had a slap around the back of the head.

    However………I’d hope I’d have had the same reaction as you

  4. Aled says:

    Thank you guys for your comments. I have to say that everything I did was calculated and thought through (although the thoughts were *really* quick) – my problem was underestimating the force of the water. I think I’ll chalk that one down to experience. If I hadn’t have had rope, helmet and harness, I wouldn’t have gone in. And I didn’t go over the edge.

    I *was* pissed off with myself afterwards for trying it. But I knew that in my own head I’d evaluated the risk, mitigated against it and tried my best before having to come back. In the end the decision to give up wasn’t really a decision I made – it was made for me by the sea.