Friday, July 09, 2010

Sea interlude

What harbour shelters peace
Away from tidal waves, away from storms,
What harbour can embrace
Terrors and tragedies?
Gorleston lies a few miles north of Lowestoft where Benjamin Britten was born. The town is at the mouth of the River Yar, a deepwater harbour that was in the past a major fishing centre and the words above come from Britten's opera of terror and tragedy, Peter Grimes. This is set among the fishing community who worked the treacherous coast in this area and the plot revolves around the deaths of two of Grimes' apprentices.

On Wednesday evening I was walking on the seafront at Gorleston with my wife after dinner. It was a warm but windy summer's evening. Suddenly we were aware of a commotion on the water's edge near the massive breakwater that separates the harbour mouth from beach. It was clear that a boy was in distress in deep water and was being pulled by the strong current toward the seaward side of the 30 feet high breakwater, from where there was no escape.

It was also clear that although other people were in the vicinity nobody was attempting a rescue. So I stripped off and swam out to the youngster who was now dangerously close to the breakwater. I got hold of him and after a few scary experiences in the strong current and heavy swell towed him back into the depth where I could stand. At which point someone else pulled us out the water as by this time I was running on empty. In addition to my efforts two other people contributed towards the rescue. One, a retired local fisherman straight out of Peter Grimes, provided valuable verbal encouragement to the youngster from a perilous position on the breakwater. The other rescuer got me and the youngster out of the water when I reached the shallows.

The emergency services arrived towards the end of the rescue. When paramedics took my core body temperature it was off the low end of their digital thermometer. So together with the young lad I was admitted to the nearby hospital. After a full check and being detained for an hour or so for observation I was released. The ten year old, a local lad whose christian name is Connor, was, thankfully, in no worse shape than me, although he was kept in the James Paget Hospital overnight as a precaution. I would like to thank the two other people who helped in the rescue and the paramedics and the wonderful staff at James Paget.

These events took place almost 48 hours ago. My original intention was not to write about them as my involvement was a personal matter. I have also withheld my name from the media because my view is the reward for being involved was to see Connor beaming from ear to ear at the hospital later in the evening, not being hailed as a celebrity in the press. For this reason I have also turned off the comments facility on this post.

But, sadly, others have turned the rescue into a minor media circus to meet their own ends. As well as the highly inaccurate nature of some of the reports I am concerned that press statements imply that blame for the incident lies with the two youngsters (Connor was at the beach with a friend and his mother) for entering the water when lifeguards were off duty. This is a very simplistic and dangerous conclusion to draw, particularly as those making the statements only arrived at the end of the rescue.

Gorleston beach has a tragic history of similar incidents and a double fatality last year was chillingly similar to the events of Wednesday. My view is that instead of issuing knee-jerk press releases aimed at the soft target of young people the public services should be asking some important questions. These include whether there are adequate warnings on the beach of strong currents and the rapidly shelving bottom, and whether swimming should be allowed at all from the beach immediately adjacent to the harbour breakwater. For these reasons I am putting this post on record in the hope that it will help prevent further terror and tragedy.

* Now for the amusing side of Wednesday evening . Next time I will make sure I am not wearing white cotton underwear; as the paramedic pointed out after checking my vital signs, cotton become transparent when wet. I buy cheap expendable watches and on Wednesday I was wearing a £15 mail order timepiece whose claim to be water protected to some depth had not been tested by me; I can now confirm that claim. If you are thinking of trying something similar make sure your wife is present; my back now sports interesting looking fingernail scratches. And finally, as Benjamin Britten also knew, swimming in the North Sea can be rejuvenating; the BBC news coverage described me as "a man in his 50s".

* Cover image is my 1977 LP of Bernstein conducting Britten's Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia from Peter Grimes which plays as I write. The painting, which resonates with events of Wednesday evening, is Le Nuage by Gustave Courbet. The 1945 premiere of Peter Grimes was directed by the conductor described here previously as The Holy Fool.

* Later - I said no comments but I have to share this link. Thanks Will, appreciated.

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