A number of men have drowned recently on the Sussex coast. They were strangers to the people they lost their lives saving. The sea is a dangerous place and these tragedies seem to repeat themselves endlessly. This tale is a true story.
When I was fifteen years old, my parents took me on holiday to Italy. We toured around various fascinating ancient places and settled for a while on a campsite in the South, a little way down the coast from Naples. Joy of joys, we had a rubber dinghy! I became used to taking this dinghy quite far out to sea and paddling back again. I did not realise that the Mediterranean does not have a tide. Brighton beach certainly does have a tide. Nowadays, if I go for a dip, I prefer to swim when the tide is coming in. I can swim against the outgoing tide but it is hard work. However, this distinction did not occur to the boyish me.
Upon my return, a friend’s family invited me to our local beach for a day of seaside silliness. My pal, Alex Lynford, suggested I bring my dinghy along. As soon as we got to the beach, we set about inflating it, whilst Alex’s two sisters and Mum readied a blanket with a spread of food. Alex’s Dad spread open his copy of the Daily Telegraph and began to read it. He was different from the fathers of all my other friends – much quieter. He barely spoke and when he did, he was very formal indeed. Apparently he was a top civil servant. More of him later.
The dinghy inflated, Alex and I waded into the sea with it and hopped aboard. I suggested that I paddle out a little way and Alex paddle back. Alex readily agreed. Facing the wrong way, I rowed us out to sea. After a while, Alex suggested that he take his turn at the oars and row us back. I wasn’t ready to give up the controls just yet. I insisted on rowing some more. The sea deepened in colour as we left the other swimmers and dinghies behind. Confident in my seamanship, I carried on rowing. Alex began to mention rowing back increasingly often and I sensed some fear in him. Normally, he was utterly without it and I rather enjoyed seeing him unsettled like this. After a while he said, “The swell is getting rather big.“
It certainly was, for a dinghy at least. Typical peaks and troughs were about half as high again as the dinghy was long. We were having more fun than on a fair ground ride! Completely carried away, I announced that we might see if the dinghy could jump out of the water. I jumped up and down in resonance with the waves and a couple of times the dinghy did indeed part company with the surface. Alex was thrown into the air. The colour drained out of his face as he shouted, “You’re insane! You have a death wish! You want to get us killed!” On land, Alex often knowingly scared me with his mad cap antics. I was really enjoying the role reversal. “Scared of dying are you?“, I asked him and kept bouncing. His response made it very clear that he was very scared of dying right then. “Yes, yes I am scared. Why aren’t you?” It never occurred to me that he might have a good point. Nevertheless, I pitied him for being scared and stopped the bouncing. Back to my rowing, I meditated on whether he would treat me differently on land or whether I was in for some dreadful circumstance that would involve provoking some bigger lads in the park into a fight. That was the sort of fear Alex thrived on. He could afford to – he had the 3rd dan Black Belt in Judo. I guess that out to sea this was less comfort to him. I rowed on enjoying the deep blue-green colour of the water until…
… Alex remarked, in a shaky voice, “We’re quite far out y’know?” For the first time, I turned around and was astonished to see that the beach was now out of sight. The land itself had turned into a thing strip just about visible on the horizon. “Yeah“, I said nonchalantly, “we’d better go back“. Alex and I swapped places and he began to row. He wasn’t much good at it. He’d never done it before. Now, whether my rowing had been effective or not, I do not know. I have no doubt that the wind had been carrying us out to sea. However, at the time, I did not realise this and laughed at seeing Alex unable to do something. Normally he was brilliant at everything (so I believed). His miscoordination with the oars was compounded by him constantly looking over his shoulder to see whether the land was getting bigger or smaller.
It was getting smaller. This was a new experience for me. Far off those Italian beaches, rowing towards the land brought you nearer it. Here, we seemed to be drifting out faster than ever. The rapidly decreasing sliver of land on the horizon soon disappeared altogther. I think this means that we were about four or five miles out to sea.
Suddenly, a windsurfer came by. “You’re quite far out lads – do you want any help?” he asked. Without hesitation I replied, “Oh no, we’re fine. I’ve done this before. Thanks for asking but don’t worry about us!” On hearing these words the windsurfer shot away. “What the hell did you say that for?!!” Alex was a complex befuddle of rage and fear. “We got ourselves out here, we should get ourselves back“, was my reply, although as I said it I did wonder, for the first time, as to the sense of this reasoning. Alex was beyond wondering. He was now doubting we would get back at all. “You’re nuts. You’re really nuts. We could have turned back ages ago but you insisted on coming all the way out here. We could have got rescued but you turned the offer down. We’re lost at sea. We don’t even know which way the land is anymore!” He was beside himself with agitation. To calm him down I said, “Come on, that sort of talk isn’t going to save us, what about team spirit? Let’s take an oar each and paddle simultaneously – that’s faster.“
Now we both faced the direction we supposed the land had last been seen at. Each of us dug our paddles into the sea at the same time and pulled hard. Without any points of reference it was difficult to see any progress. The occasional piece of scum on the ocean’s surface seemed to indicate that there was none. If anything, we seemed to be floating out faster than before. For the first time, the roasting sun stopped distracting me and I began to realise the enormity of what I had done. “Perhaps your parents will have called out the lifeboat?” “Yes, probably when we disappeared over the horizon… let’s hope they can find this small vessel in the entire English Channel.” Alex had completely lost his sense of adventure.
Very unexpectedly, the windsurfer came back. He was looking really worried. “Hey, lads, you’re really far out now. I don’t think you can get back without help. I could give you a tow.” He wasn’t really asking, he was just giving plain instructions in a way that two idiots could not refuse. Well, one idiot. Before he could finish, Alex blurted out, “Yes, yes, please don’t leave us, we need rescuing.” I really didn’t think there was any need for this sort of shameless begging. The man was already on the scene helping us. I didn’t realise that windsurfers went that far out to sea. Looking back, I recall we passed a number of hardcore windsurfers who were enjoying the swell well off the beach. Doubtless he had peeled away from them to look after us. Twice. I didn’t even discover his name.
The windsurfer said we’d need a rope. Luckily there was one wrapped through the handles on the outside of the dinghy. We tied it around his mast and around a handle on the dinghy. The pull was so strong that had we just allowed him to tow us, the rubbery handle would have been ripped off the dinghy. Alex and I lay down and wrapped the rope around our hands before tying it through the handle. Thus prostrated, with rope cutting the skin off our hands, we were towed back. The windsurfer explained that because the wind was coming directly off the land, we could not travel back to the beach directly. He would have to “tack“. He said we might end up in Shoreham. “Shoreham is fine!” exclaimed Alex. I think for Alex, Worthing would have been fine. Dieppe would have been fine. We ploughed on, with lots of waves breaking over the front of the dinghy, splashing over our faces. We gulped for air in the nearly constant stream and wondered whether we might drown whilst being rescued. I hoped this did not happen. The windsurfer would end up in trouble for trying to help.
By the time our hero delivered us to Shoreham beach, we were too exhausted, cut and half-drowned to talk much to each other. We thanked the surfer and he set off to return to his friends on the ocean. I’ve often wondered about this man. Without doubt, he saved our lives. He did it in a way, which did not humilate either of us. He parted company with no warning as to future conduct. Within seconds of his departure the wind had him racing back out to sea, much as we had done that morning.
The beach at Shoreham is three miles from the beach we had originally set off from. For some reason – probably an exhaustion of the senses – we never thought to deflate our dinghy. In our swimming trunks and barefooted, we walked all the way along the seafront, carrying the damn thing. I felt sure that we would be in considerable trouble. Alex had apparently passed through the hell of despair and emerged jubilant. He kept rambling about how far out we had gone and conjecturing that we’d probably gone further out than anyone in a dinghy ever had. Eventually, we got back to the beach where we had left his parents.
We approached them from behind. Alex’s Dad was still sitting in the same position, still reading the newspaper. He must have been a very slow reader. We’d been gone for about six hours. His Mum and sisters were standing on the edge of a shingle shelf, looking out to sea. “Hello, we’re back!” The women spun around and gasped with joy. They had evidently been crying. A lot. I was shocked to see them looking so upset but even more shocked to hear how they had treated the disaster. Alex’s Mum and sisters had wanted to call the coastguard but Alex’s Dad had dissuaded them. Instead of ignoring his instructions, they had submitted to it. As the girls rushed up the beach to welcome us, he said, “You see – I told you they’d be fine. Boys will be boys.“
Alex and I threw ourselves on the food that was left. After we’d eaten, Alex’s sister Barbara asked if she could have a go in the dinghy with me? Delighted at the prospect of taking her for somewhere for a while, without Alex, I said, “We’ll only go a little way out this time.” But Barbara was not to be swept along with me because Alex jumped up, grabbed a fork, rushed towards the dinghy and stabbed some holes in it. For years afterwards, Alex would introduce with the words, “This is my friend Duncan. Don’t ever get in a boat with him.“