16 May 2018

Kiss of life: A father and son’s near-drowning experience

When Firefighter Paul and his 13-year-old son set off on a kayaking trip from Lligwy Beach on Anglesey, he had no idea they’d find themselves fighting for their lives.

‘I thought we’d be fine’

The morning of Thursday 22 February went like many other mornings on Anglesey for the Rowlands family. After a good breakfast, Paul kissed his wife Julie goodbye before setting off on an adventure with his son Joe – a kayaking trip to Ynys Dulas (Dulas Island) about 2 miles off Lligwy Beach.

‘We got to Lligwy Beach and I realised something was missing – the personal floatation devices (PFDs),' recalls Paul. 'We always have PFDs with us when we go kayaking, but on that morning I’d forgotten them.’

Assessing the weather, Paul decided to press on. ‘It was fairly calm and I’d done this trip loads of times before, sometimes in some really rough weather. I thought we’d be fine.’

Ynys Dulas on the horizon,
from Lligwy BeachPhoto: RNLI/Phil Williams
Ynys Dulas on the horizon, from Lligwy Beach

But unbeknown to the pair, a hatch lid had come off the kayak and, as they paddled, it began taking on water.

About 1½ miles offshore, and half a mile from Ynys Dulas (Dulas Island), the kayak capsized, dumping them both into the sea.

‘It was cold, but I righted it, and Joe got back on,’ Paul recounts. ‘But as soon as I let it go, it went straight over again. We tried this perhaps a dozen times. It would only stay upside down.’

Thinking on the spot, Paul told Joe to straddle the kayak. He began pushing it, kicking with his feet.

Half an hour later, the duo were getting nowhere. The realisation of what they’d have to do hit Paul: ‘I knew that the only way we were going to get to safety was if we left the kayak and tried to swim.'

Slipping off the kayak and into the cold water, they set off for Ynys Dulas. Five metres in, Joe panicked again.

‘I think we’re going to die,' Joe’s voice shook.

‘I said that we weren’t,' admits Paul, 'but – if I’m honest – I thought so too.’

‘Dad, the last thing I want to do is give you a kiss’

Turning to his dad, Joe said: ‘I think we are. And if we are going to die, Dad, the last thing I want to do is give you a kiss.’

Paul recalls the moment: ‘He came towards me with his lips puckered and kissed me. I told him I loved him and said: “Right, we need to go.”’

Seconds later, Paul lost consciousness.

Paul Rowlands, father and
husbandPhoto: RNLI/Anna Burn
Paul Rowlands, father and husband

He woke to his son shouting at him: ‘Remember how upset you were when Taid (Granddad) died?’ Joe urged. ‘You can’t do that to me, Dad. Swim for me.’

‘You can't do this to me, Dad. Come on, you need to swim. Swim for me.’
Joe Rowlands
Aged 13

‘I tried,’ Paul recalls. ‘But my arms were failing, they just couldn’t work. Joe shouted at me: “You’re Paul Rowlands, Dad. Be him.”

‘I remember thinking: “This is definitely it”. The island didn’t seem to be getting any closer and I realised the cold was shutting me down. I remember Joe saying: “I’m too young to die.” I told him: “Don’t worry, you’re not going to die. Just swim to that rock, I’m coming.”

‘I remember thinking: “He’s only 13, it’s not fair.”’

Joe reluctantly set off for a small patch of rocks about 100m off of Ynys Dulas called Garreg Allan ('The Outer Stone’).

‘I don’t remember much – I was passing in and out. I do remember seeing Joe reach Garreg Allan – and feeling okay then.

‘It was getting a bit choppy and I’d taken in a lot of water. Laying on my back, I remember thinking: “This feels really warm and peaceful.” And I just went to sleep.’

Ynys Dulas, AngleseyPhoto: RNLI/Phil Williams
Ynys Dulas, Anglesey

‘I just tried it’

Having reached the rocky outcrop, Joe looked back and saw his father unconscious in the water.

‘I shouted at Dad to keep swimming, but he was just lying there,’ Joe remembers. ‘I knew I had to help him.

‘I wasn't worried about myself, I was worried about my dad.’
Joe Rowlands
Aged 13

‘I swam back and grabbed him, dragging him by the back of his collar. I wasn’t worried about myself, I was worried about my dad.'

Joe dragged Paul’s limp body up onto the rocks, then clambered up to give his dad CPR.

‘I’ve seen it in films and random video clips online, so I just tried it’ Joe recalls.

Seawater came rushing from Paul’s mouth. He began to cough.

Pointing to Ynys Dulas, Joe said: ‘The water’s coming in, we need to get there Dad.’

Paul stood up and fell over, losing consciousness. Joe shook him awake, but he lost consciousness once again.

Hauling Paul the 100m to Ynys Dulas, Joe then had to get his dad over the jagged rocks.

‘I put him in the fireman’s lift and started climbing. Dad had given them to me before, so I just tried copying it. I don’t know how I was strong enough, but it just worked.

‘When I was climbing, I just kept going. I knew if I stopped it would be harder because I’d still have him on my back. I was just thinking about the tower and how we needed to get there for shelter.’

Placing his dad on the floor of the old fisherman’s shelter, Joe sat opposite him, shivering. How to keep him awake? And what to do next?

‘I felt sick’

Julie Rowlands, mother and
wifePhoto: RNLI/Anna Burn
Julie Rowlands, mother and wife

Back at their holiday home, Julie was worried. She and Paul had a system and he never strayed from it. He’d check in before setting off from Lligwy Beach, arrive at the Ynys Dulas by 10.45am and check in again. They’d be back to shore by 12.30pm.

‘My stomach flipped. It never entered my head that they wouldn’t have the lifejackets.’
Julie Rowlands
Mother

As she cooked her boys a roast lunch, Julie kept checking her watch. She remembers thinking: 'I’m not going to ring, I don’t want to spoil their day out.' However, she became increasingly agitated. 'At one point, I was literally pacing. I’d lost interest in cooking the dinner.

‘I went into the ensuite and saw the PFDs there. My stomach just flipped. It had never even entered my head that they wouldn’t have the lifejackets.

‘We spend all our lives protecting our children,’ Julie explains. ‘Paul’s a firefighter and I’m a retired police officer, so we’re both very protective of them. And to do something so reckless,' she shakes her head, 'I felt sick.'

At 12.30pm, instinct took over: 'I rang the Coastguard,' she says. 'I was apologising, thinking I was wasting their time, but the call handler was brilliant. I knew I had to be calm, that I wouldn’t be any good to anybody if I went to pieces.’

‘I wanted them up with me, searching with binoculars'

Moelfre’s Tamar class all-weather lifeboat Kiwi Photo: RNLI/Phil Williams
Moelfre’s Tamar class all-weather lifeboat Kiwi

200m from the boathouse, professional joiner and volunteer Deputy Coxswain Martin ‘Bonty’ Jones was working on a kitchen. The pager went.

‘I looked over to the island and saw two people standing on the rocks, one of them a boy waving his arms.’
Josh Edwards
Trainee Helm

Arriving at the boathouse, Bonty met Mechanic Vince Jones, Coxswain Robin Baker, and Navigator Dave Priest and Trainee Helm Aled Owen. They made the decision to launch the Tamar class all-weather lifeboat (ALB) Kiwi, rather than the inshore lifeboat (ILB).

‘If you’re searching for people in the water, you want as great a ‘height of eye’ as possible,’ Robin explains. ‘The ILB sits lower to the water and the ALB has the inflatable Y-boat, if you do need to get in close to the rocks.’

Setting a course for Point Lynas, where an upturned kayak had been reported, Robin called the crew to the bridge. ‘I wanted them up with me to start searching with binoculars. They could have been anywhere.’

Trainee Helm Josh Edwards remembers thinking: 'If I was in the water, Ynys Dulas is where I’d aim for. I looked over to the island and saw two people on the rocks, one of them a boy waving his arms.’

‘As soon as I started talking to them, they crashed’

When Bonty reached them, Paul's relief was evident. Bonty says: ‘For a firefighter who’s entered hundreds of dangerous situations, to show relief the way he did, it must have been a hell of an experience to go through’.

Josh Edwards, Trainee Helm
at Moelfre Lifeboat StationPhoto: RNLI/Anna Burn
Josh Edwards, Trainee Helm at Moelfre Lifeboat Station

Bonty adds: ‘They were both talking and a bit shaken. But as soon as I started talking to them, they crashed and their speech started slowing down.'

Joe's feet were torn up, Paul's lips were purple and both were showing signs of severe hypothermia. He did a ‘cap refill’ (capillary refill) test on Paul’s forehead: 'The blood took more than 5 seconds to return' he recalls.

‘And when you hear someone saying they’ve been resuscitated you immediately think: “This is bad. They’ve ingested a load of water here.”’

Bonty knew there was a significant risk of secondary drowning and that they needed to be evacuated quickly.

Aled Owens, Crew Member at
Moelfre Lifeboat Station, kept an eye on the lifeboat’s position Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn
Aled Owens, Crew Member at Moelfre Lifeboat Station, kept an eye on the lifeboat’s position

'Thankfully the helicopter wasn’t tasked to something else,’ Bonty notes. ‘If they’d been with an injured climber in the mountains or already out searching for somebody, the situation might have been quite different for Paul and Joe.'

Joe was resting his head against the rocks as they waited for the Coastguard, saying he wanted to go to sleep. Bonty knew he was going downhill rapidly.

‘I brought Joe down from the rock, closer to me,’ he continues. 'I thought: “I need to see if we have anything in common that I can talk to him about.”’

Martin ‘Bonty’ Jones, Deputy Coxswain at Moelfre Lifeboat StationPhoto: RNLI/Anna Burn
Martin ‘Bonty’ Jones, Deputy Coxswain at Moelfre Lifeboat Station

‘I said: “Are you a football fan?” His dad goes: “No, he hates football.”

“Rugby fan?”

“Yeah,” he responded.'

‘The fear of two dead casualties stayed with me the entire time.’
Martin ‘Bonty’ Jones
Deputy Coxswain

‘Wales was due to play Ireland that weekend so I said: “I will bet you £5 that Wales beats Ireland.” Joe replied: “No, I’ll bet you £5.” He started talking and came to life.

‘Sometimes you think you’re just talking gobbledygook,’ Bonty laughs. ‘But you’ve got to talk to keep them alert.

‘My biggest fear was ending up with two dead casualties. This fear stayed with me the entire time.’

The helicopter reached Ynys Dulas and the winch operator lowered the winchperson onto the island.

With Paul and Joe inside, the helicopter made way for Ysbyty Gwynedd (Gwynedd Hospital) Accident and Emergency.

‘Are they alive?’

Back on dry land, Joe’s mum Julie was en-route to Lligwy Beach. Approaching Moelfre, a Coastguard vehicle passed them on blue lights.

‘I kept envisaging Joe in a body bag on the beach,’ says Julie.

‘Don’t panic yet. It’s not time to panic yet.’
Julie Rowlands
Mum

Arriving at Lligwy, she ran toward the Coastguard shore team. ‘I could hear radio traffic, which I’m used to from my work. I heard: “They’ve found two, a father and son.”

‘I walked away and tried to tell myself: “Don’t panic. Don’t panic yet. It’s not time to panic yet.”’

Gathering herself, Julie went back to the Coastguard team. ‘I kept asking: “Are they alive?”’ When she heard the coastguard say yes, her knees buckled.

She continued to Ysbyty Gwynedd Accident and Emergency, where a paramedic transferring Paul and Joe from the helipad let her into the ambulance.

‘They were very broken, two sorry souls sat there silently,’ Julie recalls. ‘I’ve never seen Paul like that.'

'I’m immeasurably proud of him'

Paul is stunned by what his son did for him. ‘Joe saved my life. I’ve seen people just melt in difficult situations, and he didn’t. He was really together and calm. I’m immeasurably proud of him.

‘I remember a couple of days later when Joe was playing with his friends, I said to Julie: “I just want to go and give Joe a cuddle.” Just because I could.’

Julie and Paul RowlandsPhoto: RNLI/Anna Burn
Julie and Paul Rowlands

‘I hugged my daughter close that night’

For new dad Bonty, this shout was one of his worst. 'If Julie hadn’t called it in that they were missing, we might not have gotten there in time.

‘Paul was lucky that he had Joe with him to bring him back to life and do what he did. But I think Joe was lucky that he had his best mate with him to get through it.

‘My daughter is only 18 months old, but this could be her at some point. I’d like to think that there would be someone there to replace my role, to help her if she was in any sort of trouble.

‘I hugged my daughter close that night.’

Words of advice

‘It’s easy for me, with the benefit of all the experience we have, to say: “This is what you should have done”. But in those circumstances, it’s different,’ sympathises Bonty.

‘Usually the last thing you would do is leave your kayak, but when we picked it up, it was so full of water that it had become a dead weight. They did the right thing leaving it.’

For Paul, he feels as though there are many things he’d do differently: ‘Wear a PFD, never set off without it. Carry a VHF radio. On top of telling someone where you’re going and when you’ll be in contact, tell the Coastguard. That way, if something goes wrong, they know what they’re looking for – and where.’

Coxswain Robin Baker is proud to be part of the crew: 'Every single person on the boat played a part. And without one of those people, it doesn't work. You need an effective team for a successful outcome like this.'

‘It means a lot'

Robin Baker, Coxswain at
Moelfre Lifeboat StationPhoto: RNLI/Anna Burn
Robin Baker, Coxswain at Moelfre Lifeboat Station

Two days later, the family visited the station.

‘Mum was in tears and Dad was too,’ Bonty recalls. ‘But Joe was quiet. It was the day of the rugby match, so I crouched down to talk to him: “Remember, I’ll come looking for that £5 if Wales beats Ireland!” I said, but I lost the bet!’

Paul says of Bonty: ‘I’ve been in loads of situations but for Bonty to maintain our alertness like he did – I’ve never seen anything like that before. It was first class.’

‘In this job, you don’t get many thank yous; it means a lot,’ Bonty smiles.

Planning a kayaking trip? Read more about how to stay safe when you’re out for a paddle.