OPINION: Day I could've drowned has taught me to always respect the water

New Fire and Rescue recruits rescue a swimmer in trouble as they undergo water rescue and water safe

New Fire and Rescue recruits rescue a swimmer in trouble as they undergo water rescue and water safety training at Whitlingham Broad last week - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

'Tributes have been paid to Norfolk graduate Nick Richards who has died on a gap year adventure in Australia.

The 23-year-old drowned after getting into difficulty while swimming in a river on Queensland's Gold Coast...'

Fear not, I'm still here but in one of those Sliding Doors moments, I could easily not have been.

Apologies for the morbid introduction, but after Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS) launched its annual water safety campaign last week, I feel it's important to back up the message that you just can't muck around on the water.

I hate to get all health and safety on you, but if one person reads what happened to me and it leads them to think twice about having a dip in that oh-so-tranquil looking river, stream, reservoir, gravel pit or even the sea this summer then it will have done its bit.

Every summer a couple of people seem to drown in Norfolk. These are terrible tragedies that could easily be prevented and I'm sure, like in my case, they are the result of badly conceived spur of the moment decisions.

So let's rewind to mid-December 1998 and a lovely sunny day in Queensland.

I'm no better or worse a swimmer now than half my life ago when I was 23.

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I came as close to drowning as I ever have. And the scary thing is it happened so so quickly.

Back in 1998 I was in Australia, backpacking for a couple of months with a mate and near the end of my trip I was in Maroochydore on the Queensland coast.

If you look at a map of the small town you'll see the Maroochy River that runs through it. There's a couple of small islands along the river and after an hour or so after sitting on a beach looking at them, we decided to swim across to one.

I'd say it was about 150-200 metres away and I didn't even think twice about doing it.

I guess I was in my 20s and thought I was unbreakable and unsinkable. We worked out it would only take seven or eight minutes, so we left our belongings on the shore in the middle of the day and just swam across.

Maroochy River Maroochydore, Sunshine Coast Australia

A section of the Maroochy River in Australia close to where Nick got into trouble in 1998 - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

We got to the other side and had a wander around for 10 minutes and then decided we'd better swim back in case somebody nicked our clothes.

We set off and as we got half way across I soon realised that it was much harder coming back. My shoulders felt tight, my arms seemed to be more sluggish and my legs were starting to cramp.

They were actually starting to cramp badly. My mate was maybe 10 metres in front of me and started treading water. I realised my legs weren't working at all.

I knew the water wasn't that deep so stopped to put my foot down. Only there was nothing to put my foot on.

You know in a film when something bad is about to happen and that sinister music starts up? I could hear someone pressing very hard on those low piano keys alright!

The mood certainly changed quickly. From seconds earlier happily swimming along back to my clothes, I felt so far away from the shore and so far away from safety.

Looking back I certainly panicked. I shot up out of the water, probably as a reaction to not wanting to go under and yelled for my friend. He thought I was mucking around. My heart started thumping. I remember kicking my feet against the water trying to find something to support me or something to push off of.

But there was nothing.

Fortunately my mate swam over and held out his arm. He'd actually recently past a lifesaving course so knew what to do. He helped me about 10 metres closer to shore where I was able to stand up. After a few seconds the cramp went and I was able to walk back to the shore.

We both sat next to our clothes and recovered. I was in a bit of shock. Not that I couldn't swim back, but shocked at the state of panic that had kicked in so quickly.

I tried to brush it off with an "I'll buy the beers tonight," remark and he soon seemed to forget about it.

But I didn't.

I've lived with a fear of deep water ever since. If I see people swimming off the back of a boat on holiday in The Med or wherever it fills me with unexplainable dread.

Even in an indoor swimming pool I've had flashbacks as I've left the safety of the shallow end and swam over the deep bit for a few seconds. I can feel my heart thump that little faster with the knowledge that I can't put my foot down.

I probably would have been OK had my mate not been there. Adrenaline would have kicked in and I likely would have made it, but applying this Carlsberg kind of 'probably' logic when you're in the middle of a river out of your depth probably won't save you.

The crazy thing is I was silly enough to think I could swim across a river without a problem, even with no factors like a strong current or with a beer or two inside me. It was certainly powered by bravado and little else.

Have a plan, have a friend, check the conditions, heed safety warnings, swim with an organised group, work out how you'd get out of trouble and if you're answering 'probably' to any question in your head, don't do it.

Just think how daft if would look on your gravestone that under your name it says: "He/she thought he/she probably would have made it."

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