The day our beautiful sea almost took my own life
PUBLISHED: 12:11 31 August 2018
The sea off Norfolk was the scene of tragedy last weekend and a reminder to Nick Conrad of the day it nearly claimed his own life too
Last weekend’s tragedy off Great Yarmouth has reminded me of how quickly things can go wrong at sea. The Belgian fishing boat, The Sonja, sank about 20 miles off our coast without sending out a mayday message. Thank goodness these incidents are now exceptionally rare; however, any life lost at sea is shockingly sad, reminding us of the fragility of life when working in the water.
Last Saturday the boat, based in Zeebrugge, appeared to slip beneath the surface within minutes and two fishermen sadly lost their lives. The incident appears to have been laced with a stroke of absolute luck for the remaining crew. Bobbing around in their bright orange life raft, a passing cruise ship spotted a distress flare before plucking the survivors from the water. A massive search for the missing men was instigated, with the saddest outcome of all.
I often tell friends I was brought up in the North Sea. By this, I mean from a very young age we were surfing, swimming and sailing along our stunning coastline. Each summer we would charter a yacht and sail to France. With my uncle and father taking up the senior positions, my siblings and cousins formed the rest of the crew. The adventure, the fun and at times the danger,was exhilarating and character building. But I always remember the respect we afforded the water. The emphasis on staying safe and using our experience and knowledge of the sea to make sure the risks we took were balanced.
On one sailing trip along the North Norfolk coast we attempted to enter Burnham Overy Staithe Pit, at Scolt Head Island in a heavy swell. I was sitting down, positioned on the bow (front) of the boat, when all of a sudden, I lost my grip and slipped into the water. Our little yacht had caught a breaking wave, I’d lost my grip and fallen forward into the sea. What happened next had the potential to be fatal. I was whipped under the boat, tangled in the jib rope, luckily re-emerging on the other side of the boat. Everyone else had ended up in the water too, the boat grounded after being pushed to shore by the waves. This moment has stuck with me, it’s the only time I’ve really felt like I was in acute danger. That said, at the time I was relieved, almost joyous, as I resurfaced. It’s only with hindsight and the account of those who viewed what happened from the beach that I realise how dangerous this could have been.
The fantastic BBC documentary series ‘Saving Lives At Sea’ demonstrates bravery by the boatload! The show revisits real life rescues carried out by the RNLI. The programme, to ensure broad appeal and because most rescues don’t end in fatalities, focuses on stories where the rescuer and rescued appear on camera. Interestingly, many of the stories featured don’t focus on the hapless tourist or water novice, but on experienced seafarers. People who earn their living on the water, say, or who routinely engage in water-based leisure pursuits. The point, I guess, being that the sea can take even the most experienced by surprise. And sadly, that appears to have happened in this latest case off Norfolk.
Our paradoxical sea is the most tempestuous, unforgiving yet beautiful environment. It deserves immense respect, however even those who really understand its dangers can fall foul of its ability to take life. My thoughts are with the families of all those affected by this latest tragedy. In our coastal community any life lost at sea is acutely felt, even if we never knew the individuals concerned.