Jason Pilbrow

Never Float Without a Float

Event : A Cautionary Tale

On the first weekend of October I travelled to the Cornish coast. The main purpose was to attend the wedding of my best friend, also a triathlete and fellow club member. As you would expect as well as wedding bells a bit of Strava tourism was firmly on the agenda.

After a day settling into our accommodation the morning of the big event was also to be the date for our first Strava tourism. A gentle out and back 5k. Nothing too strenuous but it set us up for the main event and got Cornwall on our Strava palmares.
The wedding was amazing, we all had a wonderful day and went to bed that night planning tourist adventure number 2.

Unable to pack our bikes it had to be a swim. I had been to Holywell Bay the day before and seen it with 40mph winds and big crashing waves. This day however was a very different proposition. Or so we thought.

We arrived and changed into our gear, the sea was choppy but nothing I hadn’t experienced before at Sea Palling and certainly no comparison to Ironman Wales 2017. We headed in excited to get a Cornish swim on our Strava. Our plan was to walk out to chest deep and swim laterally to the coast and then back to shore.

I headed out chest deep and started my lateral swim, after about 30 seconds I turned and headed for the shore. Very quickly I realised I was not making much progress. I stopped to see two of my fellow swimmers, my best friend and her new brother in law, further out than me. I called and signalled for them to head in as our situation was feeling perilous. The tides, swell or a rip current had got us and we were in trouble. The two others with us were out and safe.
(It’s at this point all) The fun disappeared from our latest adventure. I again headed for the shore, again I was making little if any progress. I now had waves crashing over me as I tried to keep swimming. Within seconds I was swallowing too much water and not able to take enough breaths. I was in a world of trouble and was sure my friends were too.

This was now a very serious situation and I needed to compose myself and work out how I was going to survive. I grabbed my tow float and attempted to steady myself. I was still getting battered by waves but my float was keeping me from going under and I started expelling the trapped air in my lungs and getting in a position to fight my way back in.

It may sound dramatic, but I am confident without my tow float to steady myself (there is no doubt that) I wouldn’t be here writing this today.

Once composed I fixed a point on the cliffs, transition style, to measure any progress. I tucked my float under my left arm resting my head on top to keep it out of the sea and fixed on the shore. I started to kick and stroke with my right arm.

Having done a 5k swim I knew if I could stay afloat I could swim for 2.5 hours, and was confident I’d either swim out or be fished out in that time. But staying afloat was the key. Don’t get me wrong I was still very aware of how perilous my situation was but I had a plan.

For 30 minutes that felt like 30 hours I kicked and swam with my right arm inching ever so slowly to shore. I am never going to moan about kicking and one arm swim drills again! As the waves crashed over me I used their momentum to move me forward, and then battled the swell to not go backwards and tried to limit the water I was taking on. Progress was slow and my level of concern ebbed and flowed, but my determination not to give up, learnt in the depths of Tri competition and the thoughts of those closest to me kept me going.

Eventually I made it to shore, exhausted and helped to my feet by a local body boarder. As I did I could hear a HM coastguard helicopter overhead. I scanned the coast to see my friend getting out just after me but 300 metres up the beach. An RNLI boat was still searching for the third swimmer, these minutes were tense. In true triathlete style I took this opportunity to stop my garmin, my swim time was slow enough I couldn’t add any extra to it! Eventually it was confirmed by the coastguard on the beach that our fellow swimmer was on the lifeboat. I could see the lifeboat was still some distance from the shore, highlighting the strength of the current he was in. He had lost his goggles and hat early on but had his tow float and as a result is alive to tell the tale.

Up until recently I didn’t use a tow float, I started in lockdown when wild swimming as pools and lakes were closed. All three of us are confident swimmers with Half Iron and Iron distance finishes, but to contemplate an open water swim without a tow float after this experience is unthinkable.

Thankfully our story had a happy ending but without a £20 tow float the situation for us and our families would have been a whole lot worse.

Don’t worry we will soon be back in the water taking part in the sport we love, but never has the importance of the correct safety equipment been clearer to me.

Last word of thanks goes to our loved ones on the beach, the trauma they went through is unthinkable, and the RNLI. Thankfully our loved ones knew when to make the call to the coast guard.

The response from RNLI was fast, professional and hugely appreciated.

A RNLI sponsored swim may be on the cards……(just don’t tell the loved ones!)

Published on 9th October 2021

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