Guest blogger – Thomas Porter
After several days of wind drought on the supposedly windy isle of Fuerteventura, restless anticipation for the next kiting fix had descended on our group. So when my friend Radu stood on the balcony of our villa declaring that a sundown session was ‘on’, there was only ever going to be one outcome; I was going kitesurfing and no man, woman or child was going to stand in my way. The fact that afternoon was quickly being replaced by evening only sweetened the deal as a warm red glow engulfed the beach. The fact that the wind was blowing offshore… well, that should have been the proverbial spanner in the works, but not for someone as enthusiastic (read dumb) and inexperienced (read dumber) as I was. As we bounded down to the beach I remember Radu trying to tell me something important about the wind. I nodded in agreement, not really listening. Mentally I was already out there. 10 minutes later, I was.
The first few minutes were fantastic. The wind, albeit offshore, was not too strong but solid, perfect for my 14m Cabrinha Switchblade. Of course I quickly learned that my ability to kitesurf upwind was not as awesome as I thought it was. With my back to the beach, my first run took me pretty much directly out to sea (although in my head I was carving horizontally to the shore like a pro). Realising my less-than-ideal position I stopped and made a beeline back to shore carving upwind as best I could. Better, but I was still out of my depth, so resigned myself to the fact I’d have to tack back for the next few runs. Of course I immediately face-planted the next start and lost my board upwind, prompting my second realisation; my upwind body dragging ability also sucked. For the first and certainly not the last time that evening, Radu came to the rescue and fetched my board for me. By this point, though, any ground made up from my last run was lost as I’d drifted further out to sea. I felt a twinge of unease, but not enough to think about ditching yet. I just had to nail a couple more upwind runs and I’d be fine…
I’m still amazed at how quickly the situation escalated from this point. As I pushed my right foot into the strap, one of the screws holding it in place bust out of its hole. The strap was now spinning helplessly on the board in its one remaining screw (I later discovered that I hadn’t aligned the strap properly when I set the board up – the screw was loose all along). Given my less than awesome upwind body-dragging skills that board was my only real hope of getting back to the beach on my own. After one failed attempt to start with my foot in the loose strap, I called for Radu who was still nearby. The conversation went something like this:
Me (shouting): ‘Radu, the strap has come off my board!’
Radu (also shouting): ‘What?’
Me: ‘My board, the strap has come off, I can’t use it’.
Radu: ‘Oh shit’.
Radu instructed me to lower my kite so he could keep his higher up and get close enough to communicate. With my kite at 3 o’clock I was now moving fast parallel to the beach. Within minutes we passed the cove we had intended to kite within, thus losing sight of my wife Hayley, my kids and the rest of our group, including Radu’s wife Monica. I knew both Hayley and Monica would be having serious kittens at this point, but I pushed that out of mind. I had my own problems, far more serious than I was giving them credit for at the time. Whenever I recount this story to anyone that will listen, at this point everyone says ‘wow, you must have been really panicking’. Perhaps I should have been, but honestly, I wasn’t. To borrow and paraphrase a quote from Matt Damon’s character in The Martian who was stranded on Mars, Radu and I were going to ’science the shit out of the situation’ and get me home.
Our first experiment was to attempt to swap boards. The thinking being that Radu was skilled enough to ride with one foot in a strap while I could attempt to tack back on his. I can’t quite remember why we gave up on this brainwave, but I do know it was hard to get close enough to make the switch. Instead Radu tried and failed to give me a lesson in using my board as a rudder to aid body dragging upwind. For a competent and savvy kiter, this should have worked. Sadly at the time I was neither, and so decided that my board was more of a hindrance than a help. I shouted to Radu to tell him I was going to ditch it. Now, anyone who knows Radu will know he really appreciates kiting gear and there’s no way he’s going to see a good board go to waste. Radu tells me he’s going to take my board back to the beach and then come back for me. He actually makes a point to tell me ‘Tom, don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you, I will come back for you’. Bloody nice guy is Radu.
With Radu gone I drifted helplessly for a while, noticing how quickly night was drawing in. My kite was back at 12 o’clock, the wind felt like it was dropping but it was still blowing offshore and therefore slowly blowing me further out to sea. Cue my next schoolboy error; I decided to release my kite. Again, an experienced kiter wouldn’t have ditched their kite-shaped-lifeline unless they had to, but in my naivety I thought I could swim back to shore using the inflated kite as a raft. Luckily I’d watched a few deep water pack-down videos on YouTube so I kind of knew what to do, although I made a real mess of winding up the lines and only really tied up the central ones, so by the time I was back with my kite (even further out to sea at this point) I was surrounded by lines in the water. I think that was the first point in which I envisaged myself drowning, tangled in white nylon. I pushed that thought out of my mind and bumbled on.
I’ve no idea how long it took but eventually Radu returned after successfully dropping off my board at the beach. He immediately asked why I’d landed my kite and told me to relaunch. Looking at the mass of white lines badly wrapped around my bar, I knew that wasn’t happening so we returned to ‘science’. I attached my leash to Radu’s, lay in the water as flat as possible while Radu tried to drag me and my kite back to the beach in short, sharp upwind bursts. It was hard to tell if we made any progress at all and later Radu admitted this was extremely hard work for him. I could tell we were still somewhere in the vicinity of the popular kiting lagoon (albeit miles away from it out to sea) and I remember asking Radu if he knew what time the guys on jetskis who spend their days rescuing kitesurfers finished work. It didn’t really matter if he knew, because it was pretty obvious they were definitely not working now. There was barely any daylight left, only an idiot would still be on the water at this time.
Eventually as darkness engulfed us completely, the inevitable time came that Radu had to go. The wind was dropping fast and we were both worried he wouldn’t make it back. He promised me he would get help. I watched him until I could no longer see his kite, and knew then I was really alone. I still had vague hopes that I could paddle back with my kite raft, so I let out some air from the leading edge and set off. It was pitch black, so all I could see was the moon and stars (which, by the way, are a beautiful sight when there’s not a cloud in the sky and no light pollution) and tiny blurry lights of what I presumed were cliff-top hotels. I gave up when I could feel myself getting cramp in my legs. I’d watched enough Bear Grylls to know dehydration would get me first, so decided to stop and conserve my energy. I was also still acutely aware of my lines tangling around my legs as I swam – not dying by tying myself up underwater seemed like a good idea.
For the next hour (or so it felt like) I had an out loud conversation with myself. My brain was doing its best to make me abandon hope and cry about my wasted life but I refused to give in. I knew my wife would not stop until she got someone – anyone – to come out and look for me. My conversation with myself went something like this:
Me: ‘Well this is a bloody brilliant situation.’
Me: ‘I can still see lights in the distance, this kite raft is holding me back, I should ditch it and swim back. I’m a good swimmer.’
Me: ‘I’m an ok swimmer, not a great swimmer, the shore is miles away and even if I miraculously made it all the way I don’t know what’s there. It’s probably a cliff face. I will die.’
Me: ‘But if I don’t try I might die anyway. At least I died trying.’
Me: ‘But Hayley won’t stop until someone comes to rescue me. Even if it’s tomorrow morning.’
Me: ‘I will have drifted to Africa by then. Or I’ll die of hypothermia. Or I’ll get eaten by sharks.’
Me: ‘Even if I drift past the end of the island, they can plot my course, I’ve seen it on TV. I’m wearing a 5mm wetsuit and I’m not cold yet, I think I can survive the night. Good point about sharks, though, thanks for making me think of that.’
Me: ‘Actually these lines will tangle me up and kill me eventually, even if nothing else does.’
Me: ‘Wait, is that a helicopter I can hear?’
Me: ‘Ha, I wish…’
And so it went on. Luckily I made the only sensible decision I’d made that day by not attempting to swim back. I’ve no doubt at all that I wouldn’t be here today if I did. Once I had made peace with my brain and accepted my fate to float until rescued (yes, I had now convinced myself I would be rescued) I actually felt a lot better. I admired the stars and the cosmos, thinking about how lucky I was, forcefully removing images of circling sharks and mourning family members out of my mind. My brain really was my only enemy at that point – I won, somehow remaining surprisingly upbeat.
Eventually I noticed what looked like a flashing blue light, miles away in the direction I had drifted away from. My impending ambulance? Probably, but I didn’t dare allow myself to be over hopeful. I then noticed two fast moving lights darting around close to the blue light. Search lights? Maybe, just maybe, but they were literally miles away. What seemed like an age later I could tell that those darting lights were coming closer, but they were much closer to the shore than I was. I began to shout as soon as I thought they were close enough to hear. They were revving along in bursts, shouting, then stopping their engines for 10 seconds or so to listen for a response. They stopped almost directly in line with me and the shore – they had no hope of seeing me, so I literally screamed my head off when they paused to listen. For a second my heart stopped beating because I thought they couldn’t hear me. One last vision of death flashed through my mind… but they had heard me. Two jetskis came bounding towards me, whoop-whooping when they finally saw me floating helplessly on a half-deflated kite. I was saved. I didn’t deserve to be, but I was.
The guys were absolutely delighted to find me. ‘Whooooo hoooooo’, screamed one of them. ‘You’re fucking crazy man! You are craaaazzzzyyyyyy!!!!’. I felt relief, obviously, but as I sat on the back of the jetski behind my saviour and we bounced back toward the flashing blue light, I felt ashamed. As we reached shore I didn’t know whether to join in with the whoops of joy, cry or crawl into a hole. When I saw the large crowd of people who had gathered to see if the crazy English kitesurfing guy would be found, the ambulance and paramedics waiting to help me, the police waiting to (probably) arrest me for crimes against common sense, I really wanted to choose the hole option. Instead I hugged my saviours, hugged Radu who had made it back and told the jetskis they were looking in the wrong place, hugged Monica and everyone else in my group who had just spent a hellish few hours trying to get me home or keep my wife from hyperventilating. I would have hugged the police but they had other ideas as they accompanied us back to the villa and gave me the bollocking I deserved.
The experience changed my life. I went back to work refreshed, positive and with a lust for life. If I could survive this, I could survive anything. It also helped me put things in perspective – for a while, nothing could touch me because nothing mattered as much as life itself! I wish I could say that feeling lasts forever… it doesn’t, but I do remind myself of the ordeal whenever trivial things are stressing me out when they shouldn’t be. Despite the positive points, though, if you’re reading this please don’t make the same mistakes as me. I was lucky. I am lucky, and I still love kitesurfing although this time with a new found respect for mother nature. Stay safe.
Hayley’s version of events…
The worst thing happened and it still feels like a dream, well a nightmare actually.
There has been limited wind so everyone was restless and keen to get out. The wind picked up in front of our villa around 5pm yesterday…I didn’t go because it was deep and I’m not ready, but Radu, Tom and Steve decided to venture out.
They were excited as, and I didn’t think for a minute it would end in disaster.
It was actually offshore (Tom and I hadn’t realised) and before I knew it he had bombed out. I knew instantly he would struggle to get back because he’s still learning to go upwind and he went so far :(.
I was jumping up and down on the beach for Radu to go and tell him, which he did, but it was too late.
I watched on the beach in a panicked state, everyone else was pretty calm at this point, but all I wanted him to do was release the kite and swim back.
As he drifted further away, I thought he had lost his board…it turns out the strap came off which was causing him massive difficulties.
I was really concerned, but didn’t know who to call. Radu’s wife Monica ran down the beach with her camera keeping them in sight, our friends Helen and Madga drove to the next point, Steve had just got out of the water and Radu an experienced kiter managed to stay with Tom. I was at the villa with the 4 kids.
I got a panicked call from Monica telling me to call for help because the boys couldn’t get back and she had lost sight of them. The guys in the villa downstairs got the owner of our villa Patrick on the phone and he alerted the team on the island. All I wanted was the RNLI.
The rescue teams had all gone home by this point, it was dark and I had no idea where Tom or Radu were 🙁 …it felt like such a hopeless situation. We managed to keep the drama from the kids and a lovely lady let them watch films in her villa whilst we tried to sort the situation.
Helen and Madga were are one point, Monica at another, Steve and I at the villa and Patrick and everyone else on the beach,
My main concern was that Tom would be left on his own. I didn’t know if Radu was with him or not. It turned out he stayed with him for as long as he could, and as Tom says, ‘we were trying to problem solve the whole time’. The wind was going to die so Radu had to get back so the rescue teams so they would know where Tom was.
I had many stressful calls to Helen, but I knew she was doing everything she could to get the rescue teams out. A helicopter was called from Gran Canaria, but it never arrived.
After two hours with no one in the water or air looking for Tom, I honestly thought that would be it. Steve kept trying to reassure me but it was no good. I couldn’t believe that we’d been so stupid to kite offshore and that potentially I would be telling the kids their Dad was gone in the morning. So many awful thoughts went through my mind, but I couldn’t see how they would find him as so much time as passed.
The texts and calls between Helen and I continued…The three things going through my head were 1. guilt, because it was me who got Tom into kite surfing, 2. how I would explain what had happened to the kids and 3. who would I call to come out to the island in the morning.
The lovely lady downstairs alerted me to an ambulance on the beach to the right of us and I know she didn’t mean to say it, but she said ‘he may of tried to swim back’, thankfully I knew Tom had been dragged in the opposite direction so I didn’t believe it was for him (well Steve did a good job of trying to convince me this was the case), but I still felt sick to the stomach.
By this point, I didn’t know what was happening at the beach, all I knew is that Helen and the girls were doing everything they could to get the rescue teams out.
After what felt like a lifetime and about 3.5 hours later after Tom disappeared Helen came through the door, I had braced myself for the worst and I couldn’t believe it when she said ‘they’ve found him and he’s ok’ – I felt like collapsing. Me, Steve and Hels had a massive group hug 🙂
Two guys were sent out on jet skis. They were looking in completely the wrong place, but Radu mentally kept track of where he thought Tom would be and sent them on their way. I’ll be eternally grateful to Radu for doing everything he could to get Tom back that night safely and to our amazing friends who supported Tom on and off the water.
There was a happy ending and Tom is very very lucky.
But never kite offshore, never late and when learning only in the designated areas.
We put a lot of people at risk that night, it was a massive learning experience and one we will never repeat. We are so so grateful to the two guys who came out on jet skis to find Tom, they were stoked when they finally found him.