Joanne France

Peril on the Tide

Joanne France

The week-long rain had ended, and the sun was peering out from behind the thick bank of grey clouds, which had dominated the sky for so long, slowly pushing them apart to reveal a bright blue sky through the cracks.  Sarah smiled, thinking today was the day to go out on the water.  She could hear the waves breaking over the small seawall, creating their own hypnotic rhythm, broken periodically by the screeching of gulls on the lookout for breakfast.  Sarah took a deep breath and the smell of the salty seaweed, brought in by the tide, rose into her nostrils and she smiled happily.  She loved living and working in West Kirby.

Sarah had only ventured out on her paddleboard into the estuary once before, usually exercising in the confines of the marine lake.  Today, however, she’d bravely decided to set out beyond the lake, after her morning breakfast shift at the Breaker Bar. She’d donned her full wetsuit, life jacket and attached her GoPro camera to the front of her paddleboard.  She’d saved up for a long time for the board.  It was a choice between wind surfing or paddleboarding and the latter was less expensive and didn’t involve waiting for windy conditions.

Beware the tides of the estuary Sarah

She had listened to the customers in the bar talk excitedly about the seals and their pups on the sandbanks and shoreline of Hilbre Island when they had visited yesterday.  Her heart skipped a beat on hearing about the seals; her favourite animal in the world.  It was at that point Sarah had thought up a plan.  On the right tide, Hilbre wasn’t too far to paddle to see them.

“I’m off paddleboarding tomorrow after my shift,” she explained about the seals to Simon, her manager at the bar.  Simon, with a shock of ginger hair and long bushy beard, a volunteer for the RNLI in his spare time, smiled at her enthusiasm.

“Beware the tides of the estuary Sarah,” he responded, as he retold tales of souls whom he’d rescued and those who had sadly lost their lives in the unforgiving sea.  “Treat the sea with respect.  Watch its every move,” he warned.

“I’ll go into the estuary and around Hilbre Island; that way I can see the seals and their new pups without scaring them off.  I can get up really close to them I bet,” said Sarah excitedly.  She adored animals, was passionate about conservation, had two rescue cats, Sooty and Sweep, and a greyhound, called Skye.  Seeing the seals up close would be something to tick off her three-page long bucket list.

She launched her board into the water, kneeling at first, then standing tall, pointing her board towards the island.  Choppier than Sarah was comfortable with, she bent her knees as she pushed the tall oar into the water, moving it through the darkness, pushing the water behind her, edging her forward.  The wind and waves made it much more difficult to steer and make headway and her arms soon began to ache with the repetitive strokes at each side of the board.  Her chest heaved in and out as she tried to catch her breath; this was like running a marathon, but she hadn’t hit the brick wall yet.  She smiled to herself, enjoying the solitude, the sounds of the sea and its birds, the smell of seaweed being washed upon the shoreline of the island and its bright red sandstone cliffs, rising in between the bays.

Her clear blue eyes shot from right to left, searching for any signs of the seals, waiting for their heads to pop up above the surface of the water, revealing big dark eyes as large as rock pools.  Suddenly, on turning east at the top of the island, she saw a group of seals, twenty or more Sarah thought, and amongst them, tiny heads next to their mothers.  They were heading out to a sandbank at the estuary mouth.  Sarah repositioned her paddle and bent her knees enthusiastically, pushing the water behind her with vigour, heading in the direction of the seals, energised by her excitement.

She was now positioned with the wind blowing towards her, and her board was hitting each wave head on, moving it up over the wave and crashing it down heavily in the troughs.  She was using all the strength in her muscles to remain balanced, head down, knees bent, pushing her way forward

illustration by Joanne France for Made In Wirral. A collage of a sea with a grey sky, and a black silhoutette figure of a person on a paddleboard out in the sea

towards the sandbank.  Then another sound encroached the peace.  This time mechanical, loud, engine like.  Her nostrils detected a hint of exhaust fumes, like the smell if you stand at the side of a bus for too long.  What was this? she thought. She glanced behind and coming up towards her was a dark shape of a jet ski. Water and exhaust fumes ejected into the air behind as it swerved and turned, creating a huge wave behind her which engulfed her paddleboard, knocking her off balance.  She clutched onto the edge of the board, kneeling, trying to steady herself as the board rocked from side to side.  She was outraged and shouted profanities to the skier who had skirted around the north of the island and was heading out towards the seals.  “Don’t you dare scare the seals!” screamed Sarah but her voice was drowned out by the howls of the wind which had picked up.  Anger welled up inside her, creating a tight knot around her chest.  She thought quickly what to do.  Desperate to get a good view of the seals on her GoPro camera, she pushed herself back onto her feet, grasped her oar tightly and dug into the inky black sea below.  Adrenaline pumping, she pushed the oar behind her, moving the water, displacing it, creating movement forwards.  Oar pushing to the right then left of the paddleboard to keep herself moving forward in a straight position.  Tension spread in her toes as she clung onto the board as water splashed over its sides, making her feet as cold as ice.  She could feel her toes starting to cramp out with the cold and pressure of maintaining balance.  She manoeuvred her board in the direction of the sandbank, no longer a yellow protrusion from the dark seas around it, but it too, becoming dark, being sanctuary for the seal population.

Over the sound of the waves crashing in front of her, the wind blowing through her hair, the screeching engine of the jet ski and the shrill of the seabirds darting back and forth in her peripheral vision, the barks and honks of the grey seals breached along the sandbank rose above all other sounds.  Eerie and humbling, the seals were calling to their pups, reassuring, keeping safe, belonging together.  Still around, Sarah had to make sure the jet skier was no danger to her seals. Keeping them safe was her priority.  Sarah tried to think of a plan of action; she’d head to the north of the sand bank, creating a barrier to keep the jet skier from getting too close to the seals.

Heart pumping inside her wetsuit, chest heaving in and out taking short gasps of air, fingers and toes feeling wrinkled and crinkly like the feeling when you’ve stayed in the bath for too long, neck and shoulders tense and aching from the exertion of paddling, she pushed forwards.

“Stop! Stop!” shouted Sarah as she saw the jet skier again heading towards the sand bank just ahead of her.  She could see the man operating the ski now; he wore shorts and t-shirt, large bare stomach protruding from where the two met, mirrored sunglasses dazzling the onlooker.  He was on a mission for the thrill of pushing his machine to its limits, no matter what the consequences.  Sarah paddled hard, trying to get in his way to change his direction of travel, then held her paddle in the air above her head to gain his attention.  The jet skier, unaware of his surroundings, seeking a quick rush to brag about later in the bar with his friends, saw Sarah appear in the corner of his left eye.  Taking evasive action, he turned the handlebar sharply to his right and moved his balance to change direction away from the paddleboarder.  Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell was playing in his ears, unaware of any other sounds and shouts of the sea.  The turn was sharp, he steadied himself, then full throttle pulled back and shot forwards, away from the island, heading out of the Dee estuary, and back towards New Brighton.  Within seconds he was gone.

Sarah tried with all her might to steady herself on her board as the huge waves caused by the jet ski began to hit the side of the board.  Then from nowhere the sea was full of eyes, whiskers, flippers, grey and black bodies encircling the board, all too much for Sarah to navigate.  Her board was rocking too much with the wave action and exhaustion had caught up with her.  She felt herself being tipped to her right, then the cold shock of the sea encircling her and covering her head, sticking her hair to her face like a veil of death laying before her.  She opened her eyes to the darkness, salt stinging, something touching her legs, wrapping long fronds around her, tying her to the murky depths of the sea, as she struggled, trying to reach above her for breath.  Sarah kicked her legs back and forth, trying to gain lift, pushing her hands through the water, needing to grab hold of her paddleboard, something to keep her from going under again.  Rope still attached to her ankle, meant the board was still there, waiting to offer safety in the choppy conditions.  She reached her hands up, kicked her legs freeing herself from the kelp prison, moving upwards, bubbles of air evacuating from her lungs as she could no longer hold onto the breath of life.  Those last bubbles penetrated the waters around her head and at last, Sarah was able to take a full gasp of air, rushing into her lungs, blood flowing through her body carrying oxygen around again.  She felt dizzy, nauseous, cold.

She grabbed the side of the paddleboard jostling around in the waves and hauled her torso onto it.  She hadn’t the energy to swing her legs up onto the board and they hung in the dark waters below like meat in the slaughterhouse.  Panic rose like a hot flush through her body, then pain shooting through from the intense cold surrounding her.  She knew she was in the deep channel of the estuary, but the sandbank, surely within reach if she swam toward it, offered security and hope.  Sarah’s attempts to get to the sandbank were thwarted by the strength of the pull of undercurrents of the changing tides.

The cold of the sea had taken a strong grip of her body, tightening every minute, making breathing difficult and painful. Every muscle in her body hurt.   Her lifejacket, the only thing keeping her buoyant tightened around her neck.  She felt her heartbeat slow as she began to drift in and out of consciousness.  A final glance at the sandbank and she could see the figures of the seals repopulating their resting place and she felt at peace.  She’d just close her eyes for a few minutes, then decide what to do.  She couldn’t figure it out right now.

“There! There! Fifty yards ahead to your right,” shouted a man clad in yellow and red waterproofs, white helmet, long ginger beard hanging below.  They had been scouring the waves for the past twenty minutes.  The skipper turned the wheel, directed the outboard motor throttle to full and headed toward the distant shape in the water.  The man bent over the side of the dinghy, grabbed hold of Sarah’s torso and with all his might, pulled her onto the boat.  Long dark hair covered her face.  Lips were blue, skin grey.  She was motionless.  The man parted her hair and gasped.

“Oh my god, Sarah!” he shouted.  “Lie her flat.  She’s not breathing,” he ordered his colleague.  He bent over Sarah and began resuscitation whilst the skipper headed the dinghy back to shore.

“Don’t die on me Sarah,” Simon begged as he tried to pump blood through her body and breathe life back into her.  Her body remained limp and lifeless.

Back onshore the ambulance crew took over from Simon whilst he paced up and down, wringing his hands with anguish.

“Why didn’t you listen to me Sarah?” he said to himself.  “Please wake up.”

Time stood still. Silence surrounded him, and then he heard the telling noise of the heart monitor flat lining from inside the ambulance.

The paramedic appeared and touched Simon’s shoulder, shaking her head.

Simon dropped to the floor, head in hands, sobbing.

“I never told Sarah how I felt about her,” he gasped, “now she’ll never know.”

Williamson Art Gallery & Museum