Drowning survivor: ‘I kept thinking I can’t have it that I die from drowning’

Experienced swimmer Jack Eoin Rua O’Neill quickly got into trouble in swells

Jack Eoin Rua O’Neill: ““I knew when I got in that the swell was bigger than we thought.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Jack Eoin Rua O’Neill: ““I knew when I got in that the swell was bigger than we thought.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Every year for the last 10 years, an average of 115 people lost their lives to drowning. In 2020, that number fell to 76. So far in 2021, 38 people have drowned, 14 more than this time last year. Up to the middle of last week, there were seven drownings in seven days – including the death of a man in his 60s in Tramore, Co Waterford, last Sunday, World Drowning Prevention Day.

The Coast Guard has co-ordinated responses to a total of 1,763 incidents so far this year, 400 more than during the same period last year, according to figures released last week.

On a beautiful day in June, Jack Eoin Rua O’Neill was involved in one of those 1,763 incidents.

At 27, he is a “long-term athlete”, a former Leinster and Ireland international rugby player, a keen crossfit athlete and a swimmer since the age of three or four. For the past two years he has swum twice a week in open water with two friends, often “in places that aren’t mainstream”. In short, he’s not the kind of person who you imagine easily getting into trouble. And that, as he says, is the problem. “Never underestimate the power of the ocean.”

'Sometimes I’d manage to grab hold of the rocks, but in another few seconds a wave would come and wash me back down. It was like being in a washing machine'

On June 15th, he and his two friends met up to swim at Lion’s Head in Howth, an inaccessible swimming spot – you literally have to abseil down a rope to get to it – near Baily lighthouse. When O’Neill and his friends arrived, there were “big swells”, but nothing that they hadn’t tackled before. “Over the past two years we’ve swum in many swells, and when we looked at the swells that were there that day at Lion’s Head, in our heads amongst each other we said this is no different.”­

Still, as a precaution they often took, they decided that just one of them would enter the water at a time. They looked at the currents and planned how they would get out of the water. But when O’Neill went in, he realised they had miscalculated. “I knew when I got in that the swell was bigger than we thought. So I swam around to the exit, and when I got there, I just couldn’t get out. Every time I got on to the rocks, another swell would come.”

His friend tried to help him, but in the process they both got washed into the water. His friend managed to get out, and ended up with deep cuts from the rocks that would later require 20 stitches. A wave dragged O’Neill further away, into a little cove with very steep, almost vertical sides, where he was repeatedly pounded against the rocks, fighting to keep his head above water. “Sometimes I’d manage to grab hold of the rocks, but in another few seconds a wave would come and wash me back down. It was like being in a washing machine.”

He eventually stopped trying to climb out, and just focused on pushing himself off the rocks with his feet. He knew his friends had called the coastguard as soon as he was unable to get out at the first exit, and could hear them shouting at him to try and just float. “But it was almost like a little vortex that I kept getting caught in. I was starting to get so tired, because I was also spending a lot of time under water.” He focused on staying calm, but “I was panicking internally. The one thing I kept thinking was that I can’t have it be that I’m going to die from drowning. There’s no way I can allow this to happen.”

'The minute I got pushed past the exit, all that experience I’d had meant absolutely nothing at all'

A break eventually came in the waves, which allowed him to pull himself out of the cove. He swam as hard as he could “into the middle of the ocean”. Further down the shore, there was another cove, and he pulled himself on to the rocks, clambering as far in as he could, and waited for rescue. He was freezing and his vision was coming and going.

About 20 minutes after his ordeal began, the RNLI lifeboat and the Coast Guard helicopter arrived, and he was winched into the helicopter. He spent three days in Beaumont Hospital recovering. Six weeks later, he has been back swimming, his scars are fading and his fingertips – which had been shredded by the rocks – are beginning to recover. He is alive, he says, only “because of the small actions we’d taken before, things like not swimming alone. Having a phone nearby.” And his friends dialling 112 to call the Coast Guard as soon as they realised he was in trouble.

Where they went wrong, he says, was “underestimating the sea condition” and overestimating the value of their previous experience. “The minute I got pushed past the exit, all that experience I’d had meant absolutely nothing at all.”

'If you find yourself in the water, float. Float on your back, spread your arms and legs, and wait until you get your breath back'

There are two reasons people drown, says Roger Sweeney, deputy ceo of Water Safety Ireland. “They overestimate their own ability and they underestimate the risk.”

Eighty per cent of drowning victims are male, he says, and alcohol is a factor in a third of tragedies because “it can instil a sense of bravado”. Sixty-two per cent of drownings happen in inland waterways. “We have 3,000km of coastline, and 12,000 lakes. And 80 per cent of people drown in their own home county.”

The risks associated with inland waterways are primarily about cold-water shock, Sweeney adds. “We live in a globally designated cold-water area, which is anywhere the temperature is less than 15 degrees. One of the biggest issues is cold-water shock. It increases your breathing rate and your heart rate, it makes it difficult to co-ordinate your movements,” says Kevin Rahill, the water safety lead at the RNLI.

“The cold-water shock generally happens on entry, particularly if people fall in unexpectedly, it seems to have a greater effect. It lasts for up to three minutes.”

This is one of the reasons for the RNLI’s Float to Live campaign: “If you find yourself in the water, float. Float on your back, spread your arms and legs, and wait until you get your breath back,” Rahill says.

The advice for swimmers who get caught in a rip current is to avoid panicking, and to swim parallel to the shore until you get through the current

The other risks with inland waterways are “underwater hazards, uneven surfaces. There are currents. You can get in safely, but it can be more difficult to get out. The banks can be slippy and the reeds can disguise dangers,” Sweeney says.

Inflatable toys, as well as more affordable inflatable kayaks and canoes, pose another set of risks. “We’ve never seen as many canoes and kayaks and all sorts of equipment purchased in this country,” says Sweeney.

For all inflatable craft, “you need to be wearing a buoyancy aid,” he stresses, while “inflatable toys are a no go – don’t use them, even a gentle breeze will take a person away.”

“The more robust inflatables can be reasonably okay, like the stand-up paddle boards. But whether it’s an inflatable canoe or a stand-up paddle board, it’s going to be a lot lighter and they are more susceptible than to be blown by wind. So you need to check the weather first” and bring a phone with you in a waterproof pouch, says Rahill. If you do get into difficulty, call 112, and the coast guard will be able to pinpoint your location.

Another trend that happened during Covid was a growth in people seeking out more remote places to swim, not being aware of the dangers. The advice for swimmers who get caught in a rip current – which will push you away from the shore – is to avoid panicking, and to swim parallel to the shore until you get through the current. Float until you get your breath back.

Sweeney is particularly concerned about children who have missed out on 15 months of swimming lessons during the pandemic, and even those who had previously learned to swim are out of practice. “We need to instil in children a healthy respect for the water, not an unhealthy fear. Then if they fall in they won’t be fearful, they’ll know what to do. We want them looking for a safe way to get in, so that they’re thinking: ‘If I get in here, will I get out?’”

He points to the Hold Hands programme developed by Water Safety Ireland to develop safety awareness in younger children. Above all, he says, parents need to be vigilant and stay with young children while they’re in the water.

O’Neill is recovering from his ordeal. “My friends have said we should feel embarrassed for what happened. Yes, we made a mistake, but I still have so much pride for myself and my friends that we did those little things that made the difference between me living and dying.”

Rahill adds that the time to call for help is “as soon as you think you’re getting into trouble. At least then there’s no time wasted. There’s no need for embarrassment whatsoever.”

O’Neill went back to see the coastguard and the RNLI afterwards to thank them for saving his life. “They never criticised anything we did, they just commended us for making the call. Tell people to make the call.”

Holiday swimming: Stay safe

  • Inflatable toys should never be used on the beach or inland waterways
  • Don’t swim alone and make sure someone is watching out for you
  • Open water swimmers should wear a high visibility swim cap and use a tow float
  • Swim at lifeguarded beaches only, or at beaches that are in regular use
  • Check out the tides as well as the weather
  • Check local safety warnings
  • Always ensure that somebody is aware of your planned return time
  • Jet-ski users should be mindful of swimmers and avoid swimming areas

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