I’ve dragged him out of the water and up onto the sand. The weight of his body forces me to stop. I flip him over, his face purple, eyes unfocused. I think he’s fitting, or maybe it’s a stroke? His face has fallen on one side, he's ridged and shaking. Above all, he’s not breathing!
His skin is turning from purple to blue. His lungs desperately attempt to suck in air, but his chin is clamped to his chest and his jaw locked so tight his gasps fail.
The training inside me flicked a switch and I kicked into action.
Sand and water filled his clenched mouth. I could hear him gurgling and choking. Reaching across, I grasped his clothing on the opposite side, heaved his body towards me until he was on his side. I held him for a split second, more water rushed out. I gave him a gentle shake and sand fell onto my knee. Lying him flat again I felt his fit beginning to ease, I began to fight to get his airway open. Finally, I managed to pull his head back and forced his jaw forward and open. The energy of his fit now subsiding into a terrifying lifeless-ness. Was he dead?
I remember taking in the blue of his face and felt a pang of intense fear. I knew he needed breaths, but looking down at his face. I hesitated.
The sight of someone drowning in reality is really quite gruesome. I questioned my myself, my ability to revive him.
My memory goes fuzzy here. I have no recollection of whether it was it seconds or minutes?
My memory vividly returns as he coughs between desperate gasps, maybe because of the flood of relief that surged through my body. I rolled him towards me, onto his side to make it easy for him to cough up the rest of the water from his lungs.
He came round almost as quickly as it had happened. Confused, anxious and oblivious to what had happened. I sat him up and spoke to him gently. Relief seeped through my veins, but this was not the time to celebrate. Now sat on a exposed beach, with the rest of the group staring at the scene that lay before them, all with ghost white faces.
Surrounded by mountains and with over 15km of water between us and the nearest road, we were not in an ideal location for a swift rescue. Sure that he was now stable, I gave instructions to the only member of the group who no longer seemed frozen to the spot. “Hold him up, keep him calm and talk to him”. I wrapped my warm jacket around his shoulders, grabbed the dry bag holding my phone and VHF and began scrambling up the steep sided mountain. We needed help.
I looked at my phone, No signal!
I tried calling the Coastguard on my VHF radio, only to hear silence in return.
My stomach sank. The realisation that I could not summon support or the medical help I needed flooded into my head. What do I do now?
I began running back down the side of the mountain, my brain rapidly sifting though the possibilities of my next move as if it were a game of chess.
It dawned on me! I did have a ‘Plan B’! Another option.
One which for the first time ever I had zipped into my buoyancy aid pocket. I pulled out a tiny gadget, flicked open the yellow door to uncover a small red button.. In that moment I pressed and held, my glimmer of hope.
I never imagined I would ever need this gadget, in-fact before this trip I'd never even heard of them before.
No fire works, no magic, no bang, just a small flashing red light. That is it! That’s all I get.
My breathing rapid from the scramble, I return to the group and kneel beside my casualty. His face now flushed pink, he’s still very confused, but at least he's asking me the questions now. I slip a camping mat under his bum and dig out a jacket from his boat that may actually fit him. I make the team busy by setting up the stove and getting some water on for a hot drink. Words of reassurance falling out of my mouth, whilst inside I feel nothing but turmoil. In no first-aid training did they ever explain to me how hard it would be to sit and wait! Wait for help, which I can only guess was coming.
My eyes constantly scan the sky, knowing that the only form of help to reach us here would be a helicopter. We waited for what felt like a lifetime, but in real-time about 45mins. A tiny yellow angel appears from the west.
It circles above our heads and I wave desperately, as if it might be looking for some other group of kayakers in this remote wilderness. I usher the team to the side of the beach, to make room for a landing. This enormous yellow bird lands dwarfing the beach that we are sat on. I meet the crew in the middle, offloading all the information I believe valuable as we move towards our casualty.
For the first time in nearly an hour, there’s a fresh cool head directing the proceedings. His calmness recharging my confidence, and his words of approval at my actions medicating the panic bubbling within me. They bundle my casualty into the helicopter and leave us as swiftly as they had joined us.
I’m now left with 4 paddlers and 5 heavily loaded kayaks. 15km from our van, and it’s now nearly 3pm. I make the decision to paddle them back to the bus. They’re shaken up, but the paddling gives them a focus. It gives me a focus. I pack up the spare boat and attach it to my tow. It’s not going to take us long with the wind behind us.
A figure is waiting for us on the beach, a local hotel owner has been sent to find us by my company. They too will have received the alert and location sent out by my Personal Location Beacon (PLB). He whisks my clients off to get a warm shower and a hot meal. I stay behind to sort out the boats and equipment. The realisation slowly creeping in. For the first time I have a chance to digest what has happened. I call home and my dad answers, I burst into tears, my cool head and calm outer shell finally broke.
So why am I telling you this story? Well, without out that PLB I would have really been alone. I would’ve had to deal with the situation, with a significantly less ideal plan. Never had I expected to be so out of touch, I had always presumed my phone or VHF radio would be enough even in the wilds of Scotland.
We never plan to get ourselves into trouble, but I can tell you from years of experience playing and working in the outdoors; it can happen. In hindsight my situation was far from dire. We were right beside a beach, a pretty stable environment to manage my casualty. Five minutes further on in our paddle, we would have been in larger waves, and up against steep rocky cliffs. Managing a casualty and the rest of the group would have been a utterly different experience.
The ‘what if’s’ have often plagued my mind. I occasionally ask myself if I’d still be a sea kayaker if I’d lost him. Would I have been able to forgive myself if i'd got it wrong, or for not doing enough? Would the outcome have been different if we weren't beside the beach? I’m never going to know the answers to these questions. But what I do know is that everyone should have a ‘Plan B’, a PLB!
This blog is written for Ellie Jackson, she sadly lost her brother to the sea in February 2017 after he never returned from a kayaking trip. My experience is no comparison to the journey of hers and her family, but we share the belief that PLBs can, and do make a difference when things don't go to plan. Her goal now is educate people on why we should carry a PLB, and also make a few available for people to access if they can’t afford their own.
If you would like to know more please visit the PLanB website
For good Safety advice please visit the RNLI website for more advice on communications, equipment and other key safety information.
*pictures are added to this blog from other sources and not from the day of incident.