An angler from Newquay in Cornwall has credited a lifejacket he received as a gift for his 50th birthday with saving his life after he was knocked off his feet by a freak wave in November.
Neal Dews’ wife Zoe bought him the £70 auto-inflate lifejacket just a few weeks earlier after the couple watched an RNLI film on respected angler, Henry Gilbey’s, blog. Neal hopes that by telling his story he can convince fellow anglers to put a lifejacket on their Christmas or birthday wish list or commit to wearing one as a New Year’s resolution.
Between 2012-2016, 46 anglers died fishing off the UK coast, 25 of them while fishing from the shore. The RNLI found that 70% of shore anglers who drowned were swept into the sea by waves. None were wearing a lifejacket.
Over the last 12 months, the RNLI has been working with Henry, who lives in Cornwall, to release a series of videos showing anglers what they can do to ensure they can enjoy the sport and come home safe to their loved ones.
It was one of these films that Neal saw and showed Zoe that made her give him the lifejacket for his birthday in October.
Zoe said, ‘When I saw that film I said: ‘We’ve really got to get you a lifejacket.
‘We do everything to keep our two boys safe. Belts and braces, lifejackets and this and that. But for himself, [Neal would say] ‘No, I’m fine. I’ve got phone and my radio, I’m fine’.’
Neal, a builder originally from Nottinghamshire, moved to Newquay with Zoe 21 years ago. He has been fishing from the rocks and beaches ever since.
On Sunday 4 November, a few weeks after his birthday, Neal headed out before daybreak as he often does to fish at his local beach. He was wearing his lifejacket.
After fishing for an hour, Neal moved on to another beach around a small headland, take a familiar route through a cave.
Neal recounts what happened next:
‘I took about a dozen steps, then I heard something. I saw a small rush of water coming in, so I stood and braced myself and it rushed up to my knees.
‘Not even 30 seconds later there was a louder noise, a big noise. I put my cap-lamp back on again to be faced by a wall of water.
‘I didn’t have time to react. Before I knew it, it was on top of me. It knocked me clean off my feet, backwards, into the rocks upside down.’
The crashing surf churned up the sand from the beach, adding to the sense of chaos.
‘It was a commotion, absolute commotion,’ Neal continues. ‘When I hit the rocks and it knocked all the wind out me, that’s when panic set in. I had no control of what was going on around me whatsoever. The only way I can describe it is like putting a rag doll in a washing machine.’
As soon as Neal went underwater, his lifejacket automatically inflated, bringing his head to the surface. But he remained at the mercy of the powerful waves.
‘It must have dragged me for 30, 40 yards. I remember trying to dig my heels into the sand going backwards. The sea wanted me. It was not going to let me go.’
‘I can remember crying to myself, ‘No. No. Not like this. Please, not like this.’
Then, another wave carried Neal back towards the shore. He clung to a rock until the water drained away. Bruised and battered but somehow with no other injuries, he clambered onto dry land.
Neal is in no doubt as to how he did not die that morning.
‘If it wasn’t for that lifejacket, no questions asked, I wouldn’t be sat here,’ he says. ‘It saved my life.’
Shortly after his experience, Neal met Henry at the same beach. It was an emotional day, as Neal relived what had happened and thanked Henry for delivering the message.
Henry says, ‘Neal said he was wearing a lifejacket because of what I have been doing with the RNLI. I am massively humbled, but I am over the moon I have got the chance to speak to Neal as a person rather than as a statistic, as an angler who had died.’
Henry’s message to fellow anglers is simple;
‘Please, please wear a lifejacket. Think about what you do and how you can best improve your chances of coming home to your family.’
Steve Instance, RNLI Community Safety Partner, credits Henry with reaching the angling community. He says;
‘Henry has helped us get to a community where we haven’t been able to get those messages across before. Henry is such respected angler and by having anglers talking to anglers about their experiences and what they have done to improve their safety means we are starting to see the messages sink in.
‘I am so thankful that because of this Neal is here with us and will spend Christmas with his family.
‘We would love to hear of many more anglers make a New Year’s resolution to commit to wearing a lifejacket. For less than £100, they make the perfect Christmas gift for someone else, or yourself.’