A couple of years ago, a rescue operation was recorded at a lifeboat station in Poole, Dorset. ‘The boat was launched at 13.35p.m. following a call that a man and two children were stranded on rocks in the vicinity of Lulworth Cove. The wind was south-south-west force three. Visibility good. We reached the scene at 13.45p.m. The man and two children — one boy, one girl, both under five — were taken off the rocks and landed at an adjacent cove into the care of a local coastguard mobile unit.’ The report concluded: ‘The man’s name and address were not obtained.’
I can now reveal that the man was myself. At about noon that day, I had dug a pit in the sand for my children to muck about in, while I sat reading a book. The cove, divided in two by a small rocky headland, is fairly inaccessible; you have to clamber down steep rocks to reach it. The sea was an amazing absinthe green that day; sea-birds swooped on the clifftop about 100 feet above us. Whether the tide was coming in or going out, I had no idea. I was enjoying the mid-morning sun when, to my alarm, I saw my daughter’s toy spade bobbing out to sea. It was an incoming tide, and coming in fast.
Within seconds seawater was sluicing round us, cutting off our exit. Hurriedly I stuffed our clothes into a bag and helped the children up on to the rocky headland. Purple plants were growing on the headland above the tide-line; we could climb up there if the water came in very high. But how long would it take for the tide to turn again? I watched the sand pit I had dug earlier disappear under foam. The water was still rising and we appeared to be stranded.
‘We’re going to be rescued by pirates,’ I told the children (anything to divert them). The novelty of the buccaneer game soon wore off, however, and my daughter began to pick at molluscs on the rock. ‘I don’t like it here. It’s so boring. Where are the pirates?’ The sea continued to splash against our sanctuary, throwing up spray. I took off my shirt and waved it above my head. There was no mobile phone signal. Luckily my cries for help were heard by a rambler on the clifftop, who indicated that he had a working mobile. ‘Thank God for mobiles!’ I shouted. The Coastguard must have relayed the man’s emergency call to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution or RNLI. A police rescue helicopter came to take our co-ordinates; in the chopper’s downdraft my daughter’s hair was sucked up like a mermaid’s. Soon a lifeboat came bumping across the surf towards us. As the three-man crew steadied their craft against the rocks, I lowered my children down to them, their faces now tight with anxiety. Upsettingly (for them), I was to be left behind. ‘There’s not enough room in the boat for you — we need to keep her stable in the water,’ explained one of the crew, adding: ‘Sorry about that.’ I reassured the children that I would follow soon. Alone on the rock, I watched them vanish from view. Ten minutes later, the lifeboatmen returned, and I stepped down off the rocks into the waiting outboard.
On dry land I was escorted uphill by two women police officers. Gawpers milled round our path. What did they want — my autograph? My hair was matted in saltwater and the paperback I had been reading earlier was sodden. (Bizarrely, it was Charles Sprawson’s account of man’s relationship to water, Haunts of the Black Masseur.) Ignorant of our rescue, my wife came down the path towards us. ‘I bet he was reading,’ she commented tartly to the police.
In Poole the next day I bought a copy of the local tide table; it confirmed the RNLI’s view that a ‘spring’ (meaning ‘precipitate’) tide had caused our mishap. At certain times of the month, the moon exerts an unusually powerful gravitational pull on the sea, causing it to ‘spring’ up fast above its normal level. Obviously, fatalities can be averted if you know your tides. We had been lucky. An average of 70 beach-related drownings occur in Britain each year.
After the rescue, I was ready to fall asleep exhausted on the clifftop when a voice at my elbow said: ‘Excuse me, are you the man who just got rescued?’ (I thought: Now what?) An elderly holiday-maker and his wife were looking at me quizzically. ‘I photographed the whole operation with my new digital camera,’ the man said. ‘Would you like to have the pictures?’ A fortnight later, an envelope arrived with the holiday snaps. ‘We trust your children are none the worse for their adventure,’ said the accompanying letter, ‘and that you enjoyed the rest of your holiday.’ Thank you; we did, sort of.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 21, 2012