We didn’t realise until it was too late that the water had surrounded us. Not once did it even occur to me that it was a possibility, but there we stood, in the middle of a sand bank off the Devon coast, our lives in danger. I’d later discover that an estuary leading to the Bristol Channel was nearby, causing a fast-moving stream of sea water, rising with every wave. We strolled back carelessly, making jokes about our potential demise. None of us took it seriously.
Myself and three friends had been running along the beach at Westward Ho! for a few miles. The two guys, Joe and Alex, I had known for sixteen years. The fourth member of our party was a girl named Alice. We had met her a few years back. After a cold and miserable winter I knew I needed a small getaway, if only for a weekend. A cheap cottage with a hot tub in Devon was ideal. Sure the month was February and the weather was typically cold, although surprisingly dry, but the low price made our minds up in an instant. It was a steal, and it would take us away from our Aldershot home for a little while, away from our boring jobs, our daily problems, our daily lives.
Devon was a great place to go to getaway. Only a few hours drive and yet the culture and customs were so different from what we were used to. Compared to London I always thought Aldershot was fairly rural, but this was something else. On the drive we saw a makeshift sign that said simply, ‘Cider next left’ and after a unanimous decision we decided to turn left. Another road took us to an old barn with a sign that said, ‘Beep horn for cider’. After beeping the horn of Casper, Alice’s affectionately named white Fiat 500, a little old woman came jogging out of her house and opened up the barn. The four of us were led to three cider barrels and given a taste and an option to buy either sweet, dry or medium. We chose medium and went on our way, we were tourists in our own country.
The four of us were all going through what seemed to be a ‘fitness phase’. Turning twenty-three in a couple of months meant I was drawing near to the modern, often over exaggerated, quarter life crisis. Fitness was at the forefront of my mind, Alex’s too. Alex and I were both built like long distance runners, wiry and virtually fat-less. Joe on the other hand, carried a lot of extra weight in muscle, so he generally fell behind in the running. Alice was fairly fit. She could run two miles without stopping which was relatively good for girls her age. This is how we found ourselves on the beach, running a good distance.
I think it was Alex who decided to slow down to a stroll, then walk out to meet the sea. I’m not sure how far out the tide was but it took a little while to walk to the water. Standing there, staring out at the Celtic Sea, Alex decided that he wanted to make sand castles, while Joe was already busy making large pictures in the sand with a stick. Twenty-two-year olds building sand castles and making pictures in the sand, inner children trying to break free perhaps? Why the hell not? We thought, as the four of us dug moats and built walls to defend against the tide.
We built the castle, moats and all, and within a minute or two the walls were submerged. After backing up away from the tide, we tried again. This one took five minutes to build, then a few seconds for the seawater to destroy it. We were ignorant to these warning signs. Two or three castles later, we decided to head back. That was when we realised how stupid we had been. The sea had completely surrounded us. We had all had so much fun digging and building, assuming the safety of the sand behind us, all without realising that the tide had actually crept around the sides of where we were. Essentially, we were stranded on a small island, with limited options that were running out quickly. We could either walk left, where the water was shallow but the distance was greater, or right, were the water was deeper but the distance shorter. We decided on going right, as the water was rising rapidly either way. We were still laughing and joking at this point.
The water was at waist height and still we joked about our fate, tempting death who was swimming beside us. Perhaps this was our combined psychological defence mechanism. Alex took photographs of me, Joe and Alice as we waded through, feeling the current on our legs, dragging us to the side. He then asked me to take a souvenir photo of him. As I reluctantly agreed, a wave was approaching. I pointed the camera and struggled to find the button, I was holding it upside down, which the others found hilarious. Once I had taken the photo, a big wave hit, taking the water from waist depth to shoulder depth. We were no longer able to wade, we were swimming.
Anyone who has been to the Devon coast in the middle of February can tell you how cold the water gets. The temperature of the seawater we were swimming through was eight degrees Celsius, which is the equivalent of swimming through refrigerated salt water, fully clothed. We all discarded our footwear. Joe had abandoned his t-shirt and Ipod, leaving him with nothing but shorts. Alex and Alice kept their tops on, but wore shorts like Joe. I was wearing track suit bottoms, a T-shirt and a hoody. The hoody weighed me down and dragged me underwater but I managed to wriggle free.
When the water submerged me, it felt like all the air in my lungs was pushed out. I tried calling out to my friends but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. For the first time in my life I panicked, I feared my death. Joe had started swimming fast and was way ahead of me, the other two swam a little way in front. My panic probably made them panic more. I swam and swam and found the cold water harsh on my body. The water trapped in my clothing made swimming a difficult task. I thought about how in school we were taught to remove trousers and use as a buoyancy aid, but figured I would struggle to remove them without first drowning. Alice, who could see me struggling, told me to swim on my back. I obeyed. As I swam backwards facing the sky, I breathed deeply and relaxed a little. I thought about how beautifully blue the sky looked. Suddenly my death didn’t seem so imminent, I could envision the four of us surviving.
Some time later, I rolled back over and saw Joe near the shore. In my eyes, it didn’t seem like I’d moved at all. I figured all my energy was being countered by the rip tide. Alex was behind me a little, and Alice was to the side. She was being gradually dragged away from us and toward the estuary. I heard her remark to Alex, something about just giving up. I’m not sure if I imagined it or not but she seemed to have stopped swimming.
“Bambi,” she called out, her pet name for me, “Grab me please.” Once again I obeyed, reached out to her and let my feet sink. They hit the sea and I realised that I could just barely walk now. I grabbed Alice and strided forward with some force, dragging her to shore. Alex followed.
When we got to the beach, Joe had already stepped out. Bystanders lent hands to help us out as we crawled along the rocks. I stopped for a second and told a man that I needed a little rest on the rocks, to which he replied,
“Get out of the water a quickly as you can. You’ve been swimming for ten minutes, and people never last longer than twenty in water that cold.” That gives me ten minutes, I thought, but I didn’t argue. As I crawled out and took off my clothes, a woman lent me her coat and a helicopter circled above. The people informed us that they had called the coastguard. Two lifeboats and a helicopter had been deployed.
The coastguard arrived shortly to give us thermal blankets and drive us back to the cottage. On the way back he informed us of the dangers of the rip tides and misleading sand banks.
“That where you were stranded, that’s what we call The South Gut. Thirty bodies a year are pulled out of there.” He said. When Joe asked if anyone had ever died there, the coastguard’s voice dropped to a morbid tone, and his reply was a short “Yeah” as though he was deep in thought. I, for one, thought it sounded like he had lost loved ones to The South Gut. I imagined his story in my head, about how he became a coastguard for this very reason. None of us asked.
Once back at the cottage we all had a quiet drink and enjoyed the jacuzzi. We went back to our usual laughing and joking in no time. We took it in turns calling our parents to tell them our tale. As I called my own mum, Alice was standing beside me. Mum asked if everyone was okay and I told her we were. A sudden thought entered my mind, a haunting image of myself calling my mum to say that Alice didn’t make it, then calling her parents. She was standing beside me smiling, but it was as though I entered a tangent universe for just a second where I wasn’t able to pull her in to shore, as she wasn’t as strong a swimmer as the rest of us. Another thought occurred. What if we had gone left? It would have taken double the time at least, and people only ever lasted twenty minutes apparently. None of us would have survived. And what if only one of us had survived? That would have been a horribly punishment for the sole survivor, likely to be Joe. The last picture I took of Alex would have been his last ever, and he was still smiling, waist deep in water. These thoughts hit my mind like lightning bolts.
“Yeah don’t worry about us mum, we’re fine.” I told her jovially, knowing in my mind that it could have so easily been different.