We like to think of ourselves as a nation of champion swimmers and surfers, but this summer huge numbers of people have been dying in Australian waters.
I had known my friend Merav for a long time before she told me the story of how she almost drowned one summer and the hand of God had saved her. Or so she was convinced at the time. Later, she'd put the whole thing down to coincidence, dumb luck and extreme circumstances. So you could see it as a miraculous story about divine intervention, with God ready to set aside bigger problems to answer the prayers of a reckless teenager alone and sinking in a turbulent sea off the Mornington Peninsula, or you could see it as a story about what happens to the mind when a body of water threatens to claim you for its own.
It begins with a burst of youthful hubris. It's an overcast December day in 1970 and 18-year-old Merav and her then boyfriend have travelled to Victoria's Gunnamatta Beach for a romantic walk. Despite the overcast weather and a pounding swell, Merav decides she'll go for a swim, ignoring her boyfriend's pleas not to. They make a dangerous pair. He can't swim and she's a natural show-off who's never swum at a surf beach before, although she has a bronze medallion for lifesaving training, earned in a pool.
Young, athletic, wildly overconfident, she races into the water and is shocked to find it's nothing like gentle Port Phillip Bay, her only other experience of the sea. Her first wave is an angry, spine-jarring dumper that hurls her down and holds her down. The returning rush of water sucks her back out, still under, while one of the many fierce rips that run out from this beach takes her in its grasp. When she finally pops up, choking and spluttering, disoriented under a leaden sky, sand in her ears, bikini top hanging around her neck, she's at least 25 metres from where she went in.
The situation is suddenly crystal clear to her.
An unpatrolled beach, deserted, at 4.30 in the afternoon. A sea whose fury she has seriously underestimated. A boyfriend who can't save her. She can see his flailing arms, his mouth moving. "Right then and there, I thought, 'I'm not going to get out of this.' I didn't lose all hope, because the will to survive is so much stronger than that but I realised it was so much more dangerous than I had thought. I was already struggling to keep breathing."
I love working on Australia Day, but you're dealing with people working up a hangover, or non-swimmers who think an inflatable thong is going to save their lives.
Yet she's also feeling embarrassed. A hot line of shame playing out above the rising panic. Lifesavers will later tell me this reaction is common, and it's one of the reasons some people – especially teenage boys – wait too long to raise an arm for help. They feel stupid for getting into this situation; they'd like to get out of it without anyone knowing.
Merav knows she's in difficulty and there's terrible fear, but there's also room to worry about what other people will think. "At that point it was still clichéd stuff: 'Silly me, everyone's going to think I'm such a wally, gosh, my parents are going to be so upset, they'll know I was out with a boy, oh, my dad's going to be furious.' "
Another friend of mine, who almost drowned in her late 50s, having broken the cardinal rule to never swim alone, tells a similar tale. "I was so angry about it," she remembers. "I'd only retired a couple of weeks earlier and even while I was struggling to get back to shore – and it took me an hour – part of me was thinking, 'This is so unfair! I'm going to die now. Why didn't I retire earlier?' "
(While both my friends who nearly drowned were women, it's far more typical for drowning victims to be male. For example, between June 2015 and June 2016, of the 280 people drowned in Australian waterways, 83 per cent were male. Even among toddlers in pools, it's overwhelmingly little boys who drown.)
Merav isn't ready to give up. But she does what many of us do when we feel ourselves being carried out to sea on that fast train known as a rip. Instead of trying to swim across or out of it – rips can be long but they're relatively narrow – she tries to power back to the beach by swimming against the current. "But I couldn't even go one arm forward. I was being dragged so quickly by this tow. Very soon after that effort to swim back, I got really tired. It doesn't take long. After that, I was just trying to breathe."
She knew it would be fatal, and pointless, to panic. Panic is the great enemy. It's why lifesavers say, "Stay calm and raise an arm", although raising an arm only helps when beaches are patrolled or if there's someone capable to respond to that traditional distress signal. But even without help around, it seems keeping calm is everyone's best hope, because the whims of the sea can turn out to be a salvation.
It's not always easy to swim across a rip or even work out the right direction, but a US oceanographer, Jamie MacMahan, has found that rips are less like long plumes running out to sea and more like whirlpools or eddies circulating through the surf in seven-minute revolutions. That can seem an age when you're in one, but MacMahan estimates that if swimmers stay calm and float with the rip, 90 per cent will be returned to somewhere they can stand within a few minutes. A handful, however, might be swept seaward.
After the first terrifying rush towards the horizon, Merav can feel she is being taken out more slowly, but she is now a mighty distance from the shore. Her poor boyfriend has become a tiny, helpless figure. No mobile phones, no houses, a long way to the road. Should he run to get help or stay and keep her in sight? Out in the rough waters, Merav can't see a way of getting back in alone. Now she's focused on just staying alive as long as possible.
"You do have this hope that an angel or whatever will come," she says, remembering the desperation, "that you'll be saved somehow. I was getting more and more fatigued. I kept being swamped in some way, constantly submerged. I was swallowing water. I didn't know how much longer I could keep coming back up."
The water is cold. The salt is choking. It is just her out there, with her head up. "I can't tell you what a vulnerable, slightly spiritual position that is," she says. "You do feel like a supplicant: 'Here I am, fighting for my life with my vulnerable neck exposed.' In that immenseness of sea, I felt like an insignificant gnat. All the teenage hubris, all the dreams and hopes, were taken away. It just became a thing of trying to lift up for a bit longer."
Anyone can drown, but by floating and treading water, a more experienced swimmer in trouble might be able to survive long enough to be rescued. They will look like a swimmer in trouble. Someone really drowning does so remarkably silently and with very little movement.
They display signs that two American survival experts, Francesco Pia and Mario Vittone, have labelled "Instinctive Drowning Response". A clearer name might have been instinctive anti-drowning response, because it's actually the body's desperate, primal attempt to avoid what is essentially suffocation.
It happens when people are beyond conscious action and very close to going under for good.
IDR explains why a lot of people don't look like they are drowning – they don't fit our picture of how a drowning person behaves – yet they are in fact a minute or less away from it. It explains why children can drown so silently and so frighteningly quickly, even with adults close by. It explains why some people can drown unnoticed, not far from other swimmers.
Despite the stereotype, drowning people don't flail or call out. They can't. By that point, instinct and the autonomic nervous system have taken over and every fibre of their being is focused on breathing and keeping their head above water. Breathing takes precedence over vocalizing. Their legs don't appear to be kicking, their body is upright, head tipped back. Their mouths are dipping above and below the waterline as they desperately try to exhale and inhale. They cannot voluntarily control their arm movements to wave for help or swim to a rescuer. Instead, instinct makes them put their arms out to the sides, trying to "press" on the water to lift themselves up.
Nixy Krite, a lifesaver at South Maroubra in Sydney, and part of that honourable group of Australians in red and yellow who give up their weekends and public holidays to patrol our beaches as unpaid volunteers, tells me that lifesavers are also trained to look for a telltale pawing motion of the hands in the air known as "climbing a ladder". According to the researchers, somebody showing the signs of IDR can only struggle on the surface for 20 to 60 seconds before they sink.
In a mass rescue, says Krite, these are the swimmers you'd head for first. (As we speak, Krite, her eyes scanning a Sunday crowd in a big swell, and in particular the four swimmers blithely entering a rip area right in front of the "Danger" sign, is gearing up for Australia Day. "I love it, but you're dealing with people working up a hangover, or non-swimmers who think an inflatable thong is going to save their lives.")
Of course, swimmers who are waving and calling out also need help but they're in what Pia and Vittone call "aquatic distress" – not yet drowning but they know they're in trouble.
Out there off Gunnamatta, Merav is adrift somewhere between those two points. She certainly knows she's in trouble. The fear is still pulsing and she has never been more physically engaged, never more in the moment, yet part of her brain, calmer now, roams across time. And her life does pass before her eyes.
"It was like seeing a parade of the story of my life so far, the episodes. Things like stealing from my cousin's piggy bank when I was five. Every misdemeanour but every good thing as well. Things popped into my head about where I had been kind to people, where I had been cruel.
"I got a reel of my life that was completely unsentimental and truer than any reflections I'd had before. Maybe because of the concentration of time – that you know you only have a tiny bit left – there's no self-delusion. It wasn't just a narrative. It was heavily laden with all sorts of judgement calls and moral assessments and a very keen awareness of being answerable to something. I was agnostic but I had such a spiritual experience with this drowning."
Neuroscientists might have more prosaic explanations for what she begins to sense but, for her, it is the numinous. She has an overwhelming sense of being watched by a "being", a "presence". That eye, the sky. She feels like a figure from the Old Testament, brought low in the sight of a fierce, all-seeing God.
"I felt ashamed of every bad thing I'd done. Not being a good enough daughter, not studying hard enough. Everything. I was aware someone had been assessing me. I remember having real difficulty looking at the sky, a feeling of wanting to turn from it. It was like 'There it is. He, she, whatever … you can see me.' "
And she asks for help. "I was praying, 'Please save me! I will be so good! I will be your greatest servant.' At the time, every promise I made was a true conviction because I really felt I was talking to someone right up there. I also apologised for having been such an idiot."
Believers might see what happens next as God working in mysterious ways. Her prayer barely uttered, Merav dips her head just long enough to take an exhausted look towards the shore and sees a golden beam of light break through the dark clouds. Illuminated, first a dog and then two people cresting the dunes. The young man and young woman run towards her frantic boyfriend. An instant later, the youth strips off his trousers and plunges into the surf. He is only 16. Brave or foolhardy?
One poignant aspect of water tragedies is that it's not uncommon for the initial victim to be saved while the would-be rescuer is drowned. We read of it often, these automatic gestures of love and selflessness that end in tangled heartache for the families. Frequently it's children who survive, but with the loss of a parent or close relative. On Boxing Day last year, 60-year-old Geoffrey Blackadder died at Wooli Beach on the NSW North Coast while trying to save his brother's grandchildren. The girls were saved by other rescuers on the patrolled beach but Blackadder couldn't be revived.
The phenomenon is well enough known for it to have an acronym: AVIR. In a 2010 paper headed Drowning for Love, Queensland researchers John Pearn and Richard Franklin looked at what they called the "aquatic-victim-instead-of-rescuer syndrome". They studied drowning fatalities involving people who'd been attempting to rescue children.
They are yet to quantify how common it is, but as an example, in Australia between 2002 and 2007, 27 rescuers drowned in 15 incidents in which the "primary victim" was a drowning child. In 93 per cent of those incidents, the child survived. Seventy-six per cent of those who died were a male parent, partner or first-degree relative like an uncle. Most were tourists or visitors unfamiliar with the location.
AVIR, says Franklin, can happen for many reasons: people overestimate their swimming abilities; they lack training in non-contact rescue skills (in studies where untrained adults were asked to throw a rope to a target, most missed getting within two metres at a first attempt and 20 per cent didn't think to secure the other end before they threw it); they are grabbed and pulled down by the person they're trying to save; or they act on impulse, before assessing the situation or looking for alternatives. Presumably, the sense of urgency, the pounding heart and weight of responsibility, don't help.
In Merav's case, her rescuer is a stranger. He has the advantage of knowing the beach and conditions. And whoever or whatever has delivered him to that deserted spot at that precise moment has taken care of the details. The boy is a state swimming champion. His sister, waiting anxiously on the sands, is a nurse.
Gunnamatta is a notoriously treacherous beach, with big swells and strong rips. It takes the boy about 20 minutes to reach Merav, who had been close to giving up until she spotted him. As he nears, relief and gratitude flood through her. She manages to stay calm and not grab at him. The boy tells her to hang on to his pants. There's a crazy moment when the underpants are yanked off, and she's suddenly aware of having no top on, but they sort it and set off.
Even so, it's a long struggle back through the heavy surf. By now, Merav is hallucinating. Her vision is distorted, the sea and the sky are throbbing. The shore seems to approach and recede. She is nauseous. Her throat is red raw.
They are at last thrown up onto the sands like a couple of beached fish, the youth bouncing up as if he's just been for a bracing dip, Merav vomiting, shivering violently and allowing herself to be hysterical now as the nurse/ sister attends to her.
They carry her back to the pair's nearby holiday house and put her to bed, but her agitation won't let her rest. All in all, they calculate she has been in the water close to two hours. Later that evening, she goes home, tells her parents nothing about it, and collapses into an exhausted sleep.
Does it change her life? In the days to come, she finds herself doubting the divine intervention. "I backed away from that idea of a deity really quickly," she says now, a little shamefaced. "Now that I was safe, I wanted reason to prevail. Fear and desperation made me do what apparently everyone does: atheists, agnostics, everyone alike, whether they're drowning or in 9/11 buildings. Suddenly it's 'God, save me!'
"I felt I was just another cliché, except that the feeling was so strong that here I am, still able to feel it after all these years. I had to put quite a bit of energy into suppressing that experience because I wanted to consider myself a rational being, but lately I find myself thinking about it more and more."
At the time, dazed by what had happened, she couldn't find the right words to thank her young rescuer. She could only make a teenage gesture. She organised a loan with her boyfriend's help and bought a top-of-the-range stereo system for the youth. She had it delivered without her return address or details.
"Back then, I couldn't talk to him somehow," Merav says, more than 40 years later. "I never had any further contact. I don't have his name or know how to contact him, but I'd desperately like to track him down and thank him properly for what he did, for his courage and selflessness."
It took her 10 years to pay off the loan. Still, a small price for an eleventh-hour reprieve from a fate so many others have met, not least a man in his 20s who drowned only last year at that same beach, now a patrolled beach that has Victoria's second-highest rate of rescues. For a nation that loves the water and sometimes takes its benevolence for granted, it's a terrible end that is never far away.
NOT WAVING, DROWNING
- Between December 1 last year and January 15 this year, 57 people drowned in Australia. Half the deaths occurred in NSW alone.
-Inland waters, not ocean beaches, tend to be the leading location for drowning deaths. Reasons include the absence of lifeguards and hidden dangers such as snags, strong currents and collapsing banks.
-The peak drowning age for toddlers, who can drown within minutes, is 18 months to 2½ years, and almost all drown within 50 metres of a home, in anything from a pool to a fi shpond. A small percentage of children who are resuscitated after long submersion will suffer brain damage or learning diffi culties.
-Annual figures from 2015-16 show that the two biggest age groups for fatal drownings are men aged between 25 and 34, and men over 65, often with pre-existing medical conditions.