How a brush with death inspired a new learning experience

November 30, 2018 0 By NatalieM
How a brush with death inspired a new learning experience

It was a beautiful summer day, and I was reporting on a windsurfing race. It was part of my job as a writer for a windsurfing magazine, and the Editor had lent me his windsurf board so that I could do a bit of windsurfing after the event was over.

My windsurfing level at that time, in the late 1980s, was beginner progressing to intermediate, and the windsurf board I was borrowing was a bit smaller and lighter than the ones I normally used. This meant it could go faster, but was less stable, and I was enjoying the challenge of trying to get it going, and the exhilaration of the speed when it did take off.
There were hundreds of people out on the water and the conditions were excellent, with sideshore winds. I didn’t particularly notice the winds strengthening and changing direction slightly, because I was too busy trying to lift the sail up. It kept blowing over. I was just focused on trying to keep it up.

Struggling

After a while I began to feel so warm, I removed the jacket of my wetsuit and tied it round my waist. It had a “long john” design with a kind of bolero jacket. By now the wind had strengthened notably, and I was really struggling to lift the sail.
I heard a shout and a couple of guys appeared. They asked me if I was in difficulty, and suggested that I perform a “self rescue” by partially dismantling the sail and rolling it up, then lying the mast along the board lengthwise, so that they could tow me back to shore. I knew how to do a self rescue, and I didn’t want to trouble them, but it did seem like a good idea, as I was really getting tired.
It was only once my sail was rolled up that I realised how far I’d drifted away from the shore. I was just starting to take this in, when a small speedboat appeared, and the driver asked me to get in, while the two guys who had spotted me hoisted the windsurf board and sail on board the boat.

I was really shocked. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might need to be rescued.

Shivering

As soon as I stepped into the boat, the driver put a blanket around my shoulders and handed me a cup of hot chocolate. It was only then that I started shivering heavily. I was genuinely astounded, as up to that point I’d had no idea of the danger I was in.

I had probably been drifting out at a roughly 45 degree angle to the beach, and at quite a speed, as the wind strengthened. I’d been so focused on trying to get the sail back up that I hadn’t noticed how fast I was drifting away, or how far. At no point had I felt any panic or alarm – until that point during my rescue, when I’d looked back and noticed how far I had drifted from the shore.

The speedboat driver took me to his own home, near the beach, where he and his wife helped me to warm up and recover from the exposure. He was acting as a kind of freelance rescue service. I felt incredibly grateful and didn’t know how to thank him. He suggested a donation to the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution).

I was also very grateful to the two men who had spotted me drifting out to sea – however by the time I’d warmed up enough to think clearly about what had happened, it was too late to find out who they were and thank them.

It was one of those experiences whose effects sink in gradually.

Rural idyll

Over a decade later, I was living in a rented cottage on a farm near Loch Lomond, working as a freelance book editor. It was an almost idyllic lifestyle, and I’d probably still be doing it if the freelance contract hadn’t come to an end.

I still enjoyed windsurfing, and by now I had a windsurf board of my own, which I used on Loch Lomond when the wind was blowing in the right direction.


Windsurfing at Loch Lomond

My windsurfing skills had progressed quite a bit, and I had no more close shaves or accidents.

My only concern at the time was a slight sense of isolation. I didn’t feel lonely – I had friends and family in Glasgow, about 20 miles away, and I had quite a few visitors. But I felt the need to get out more!

Volunteering

I decided to do a bit of volunteering, and I got in touch with the Loch Lomond Park Rangers. Volunteer Park Rangers are often people who would like to get paid work as a Park Ranger, as it’s a very competitive field of employment. But this wasn’t the case for me. I just wanted to get involved with my local community.

I was told that I could volunteer on the ground, or with the Loch Lomond rescue boat. I chose to do both! As a windsurfer, the idea of rescue boat work had immediate appeal. I also felt that it was a way for me to “give back” after my rescue all those years earlier. In fact, I’m not even sure it was as clear-cut as that. At a subconscious level, the idea of being the rescuer instead of the victim had a lot of appeal.

The “ground” volunteering took place mainly at weekends, and involved making paths, cutting back bushes, digging culverts – all kinds of things. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

High traffic

Loch Lomond is one of Scotland’s most popular tourist destinations, and it sees a lot of traffic. There were passenger boats, rowing boats, motor boats, paddle steamers, jetskis, kayaks – and, if the wind conditions were right, windsurfers.


Me with the rescue boat crew and supporters.

The rescue boat was an RIB, or rigid inflatable boat, partially funded by charitable donations. The crew wore drysuits and helmets, and we did practice exercises every week, often at night, as rescues sometimes have to take place in the dark. We sometimes did exercises with the local Mountain Rescue Team, practising for a potential co-ordinated ground and water rescue. I was very impressed with how well trained the MRT’s collie dogs were – they would sit patiently on the boat without any display of anxiety.

Rescue boat in action.

Being out on the boat was very exhilarating. I sometimes found it a bit scary if the water was choppy and the boat was bouncing over the waves. On one night exercise in calm conditions, something went wrong with the navigation and we ran aground on one of Loch Lomond’s many islands! Luckily we were going slowly at the time and there was no damage – just instant shock followed by a lot of laughter.

Loch Lomond is known for its beauty, but there is nothing like the view you get from the centre of the loch, surrounded with mountains. We also got the chance to visit some of the lesser-known islands in the loch. My favourite was Island I-Vow, a very small island in the north of the loch. Among the yew trees on the island are the remains of a castle that was built in the 16th century, once the residence of chiefs of the Clan MacFarlane. The poet William Wordsworth, who visited Island I Vow in 1803, found a hermit living in the castle ruins.

One evening we drove past the island of Inchconnachan, known for its colony of wild wallabies. Just in case you’re wondering, wallabies are not native to Scotland! These wallabies were introduced by Lady Colquhoun in the 1940s, and despite the difference in climate from Australia, they have thrived.

The boat briefly stopped near the island and a torch was shone into the trees. Wallabies were clearly visible, standing on their big hind legs, looking at us with expressions of surprise and curiosity. It was quite a surreal sight. We quickly moved on, leaving them in peace.


Source Sadly I didn’t get any photos of the wallabies on Inchconnachan, but this one looks similar, especially with its surprised expression!

Minor incidents

The call-outs that I was involved in were mostly minor incidents, although on a couple of occasions we were searching for the bodies of people who had been reported missing. We didn’t find them.

One incident involved rescuing some lads who had gone out on a relative’s motor boat, and had run out of petrol. They had no lifejackets or buoyancy aids, and were wearing light clothes. This was at a time before smartphones, so although it was summertime, they had been waiting a long time to be rescued and were pretty cold.

After a while I returned to office work, commuting to a full-time job 20 miles away from Loch Lomond, so my volunteering stint with the rescue boat came to an end. It was a very interesting and educational phase of my life.

I would highly recommend volunteering to anyone who has a bit of time on their hands. It’s a great way to learn, meet new people and get new experiences.

Image sources

Main image source

Blanket photo source

All other photos my own unless stated.