‘If it wasn’t for that lifejacket, I wouldn’t be here’
Neal Dews was brought up on the River Trent. It was where he first learnt to fish. ‘I was taken under the wing of a man called Colin Walton, a master on the river who taught me everything about fishing,’ he says.
Years later, Neal and wife Zoe would name their oldest son after the river, having left Nottinghamshire for a new life in Cornwall.
‘I was devastated there were no rivers’, says Neal. But he soon exchanged fresh water for salt and has been fishing the rocky Atlantic shores around Newquay ever since.
A builder, Neal was always safety conscious. He’d tell Zoe where he was fishing and would carry a portable VHF radio, just in case. But, like many anglers, he did not think about wearing a lifejacket.
‘We’ve really got to get you a lifejacket’
Neal got more serious about lure angling – fishing for seabass using fish-shaped lures – and started entering local competitions. During one bass contest in 2017, a big wave swept up the rocks, narrowly missing Neal.
Then, in early 2018, he came across an RNLI video on the blog of respected angling writer, Henry Gilbey.
In it, Henry and some fellow anglers leapt into the RNLI’s sea survival training pool to discover what it’s like to plunge into cold water, with and without lifejackets.
Neal thought about his near-miss. He showed the video to Zoe.
‘When I saw that film, I said: “We’ve really got to get you a lifejacket”,’ she remembers.
‘We do everything to keep our two boys safe. Belts and braces, lifejackets and this and that. But for himself, Neal would say: “No, I’m fine. I’ve got a phone and my radio, I’m fine”.’
Zoe knew she had to take it on herself. Neal’s 50th birthday was coming up in October. He had written a gift list and included an auto-inflate lifejacket.
As he was preparing to take part in another competition, Zoe surprised him with an early present – a lifejacket. She had done her research and bought it online for just under £70.
‘I got to grips with it straightaway,’ says Neal. ‘After a couple of hours, I didn’t even know I’d got it on, it was so comfortable.’
‘There was a loud noise’
Just a few weeks later, at 5am on Sunday 4 November, Neal headed out to fish Newquay’s Tolcarne Beach. He was kitted up – rod, tackle-bag, waders, headtorch, hooded coat. And, for only the sixth time, his lifejacket on top.
There was a big swell that morning. Neal spent time above the beach watching the ocean, judging the conditions. The tide was receding as he made his way down to the shore.
After fishing for an hour, Neal decided to move to a different spot around a small headland. Seeing the surf, he chose to take a well-worn shortcut through a cave.
It was still dark when Neal reached the other side. He turned on his headtorch.
‘I took about a dozen steps then I heard something,’ he says. ‘I saw a small rush of water coming in, so I stood and braced myself and it rushed up to my knees, no problem.’
He carried on.
‘Not even 30 seconds later there was a louder noise, a big noise,’ says Neal. ‘I put my cap-lamp back on again to be faced by a wall of water.’
‘It knocked me clean off my feet’
‘I didn’t have time to react. Before I knew it, it was on top of me. It knocked me clean off my feet, backwards, into the rocks upside-down.’
The crashing surf churned up the sand from the beach, adding to the sense of chaos.
‘It was a commotion, absolute commotion,’ says Neal. ‘When I hit the rocks, it knocked all the wind out me. That’s when panic set in. I had no control of what was going on around me.
‘Eyes, ears, nose and mouth full of sand and water. It’s just sheer panic. The only way I can describe it is like putting a rag doll in a washing machine.’
Almost immediately, the water triggered the lifejacket’s automatic inflation mechanism, bringing Neal’s head back to the surface. But his ordeal was far from over.
‘It must have dragged me for 30 or 40 yards. I remember trying to dig my heels into the sand going backwards. The sea wanted me. It was not going to let me go.
‘I can remember crying to myself: “No. No. Not like this. Please, not like this”.’
‘If it wasn’t for that lifejacket, I wouldn’t be here’Just then, another wave carried Neal back towards the shore. In desperation, he clung to a rock and held on until the water rushed away.
Bruised and battered, but with no other injuries, he clambered onto the beach and sat down.
‘I was sobbing, absolutely sobbing,’ he says. ‘Petrified. Terrified. Words cannot explain it.’
Neal managed to get himself home to Zoe. Two days later, he visited a nurse. When she saw his bruised legs and backside, she told him: ‘You’ve been hit by a car.’
Neal is in no doubt as to how he survived that morning. ‘If it wasn’t for that lifejacket, I wouldn’t be here,’ he says. ‘It saved my life.’
After sharing his experience on social media, he got in touch with Henry Gilbey, who also lives in Cornwall, and the two met up.
Henry is continuing to work with the RNLI to release a series of videos showing anglers what they can do to enjoy the sport and come home safe to their loved ones.
And now Neal, by telling his story, has a chance to do the same.