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‘I thought: That’s it, that’s me gone’

Ruth Osborne has always loved sports – and, after a holiday to Cornwall in 2003, surfing truly captured her heart. She always felt safe in the water, so long as she had her surfboard. But one day, a rogue wave left her out of her depth, without her board and without help – until she remembered some advice that would help save her life.  

After getting her first taste of surfing, Ruth quickly became hooked and moved to the coast – swapping city life in Birmingham for the sandy shores of Newquay. ‘What I love about surfing is the feeling of just being out in the ocean,’ she says. ‘You’ve got nothing else to think about besides: “When’s the next wave coming?”’ 

Learning a new skill, and sport, was a real milestone for Ruth, who has always had a fear of the sea. ‘I was really scared of the water,’ she explains. ‘I lost my uncle to the sea when I was 6 years old and I just accepted that swimming was something I would never do.

‘I always used to joke that if my life depended on it, I couldn’t swim.’

False sense of security

Ruth learned to surf with a group of competent surfers. And one day, in reasonable weather conditions, she decided she was confident enough to go out alone.

Heading into the water, Ruth started surfing. After some time, she rolled off a wave and waited for the tug from her leash which would pull her back to her board. Only this time, she couldn’t feel it.  

‘Because I wasn’t comfortable in the water, every time I fell off my board I would scramble back on as quickly as possible. It was my flotation device and my sense of security,’ she describes. 

‘I came up for air and saw my board bobbing off towards the shore – it was literally my worst nightmare. I was very scared of being out of my depth.’

In the deep end

‘My first instinct was to shout for help. I shouted and shouted but nobody heard me – there was a feeling of real panic and the waves were getting bigger and bigger.

‘The worst place to be, as a beginner surfer, is in the impact zone with the waves breaking on your head,’ Ruth explains. ‘And suddenly I found myself there, with no flotation device and a real fear of this scenario.’

With no-one to help, and no chance of being able to swim back to shore, Ruth was trapped under the crashing waves. 

Ruth Osborne on Perranporth Beach

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

‘That’s it, that’s me gone’

‘Wave after wave came,’ she remembers. ‘You get tumbled up like you’re in a washing machine – you’re upside-down, your limbs are flailing all over the place. As soon as I came back up for air, the next wave was waiting to crash on my head.

‘As this was happening, I was starting to drift out of sight of the beach until I wasn’t visible to anyone. I was getting closer and closer to the cliffs and, at one point, I was so disorientated I looked up at a 30ft cliff and thought it was a wave.

‘I thought: ‘that’s it, that’s me gone. I can’t deal with this anymore.”’

‘The lesson is to float for your life’

Three days earlier, Ruth had spoken to an RNLI lifeguard about what to do if her surfboard leash broke in the water. Their advice was now echoing in her mind, as the waves continued to fight her.

‘I remembered what the lifeguard said about relaxing,’ Ruth recalls. ‘And I realised it wasn’t about swimming for my life, it was literally about relaxing to save my life.

‘If you try to swim, it’ll exhaust and terrify you. The lesson is to float – so I did. I trusted each breath of air I took and each time I came back up, I just trusted there was enough air in my lungs to help me stay afloat. 

‘From the conversation I’d had with the lifeguard, I knew the sea would eventually bring me back to shore. Someone would see me, and it would be OK.’

Surfer Ruth Osborne on Perranporth Beach

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

A lifesaving experience 

Eventually, Ruth was able to bring herself back to safety. 

After her horrific ordeal – and later, with a new perspective on life after becoming a parent – Ruth decided to face her fears and learn how to swim. 

‘I told myself: “This is something I’m going to beat.” It was actually an RNLI lifeguard that taught me to swim at Newquay Swimming Pool. That’s been my biggest accomplishment in life – I can swim in the sea now.’

How to save your life 

Ruth has no doubt that the advice she learned from RNLI lifeguards helped her save herself that day. 

‘If one person finds themselves in a difficult situation and remembers to float, it’s worthwhile,’ she says. ‘You can save your life by staying relaxed. If you fight the water, you’ll quickly get exhausted.  
‘If a non-swimmer like me can learn how to save their own life in the water, anyone can – it’s the most important thing.’

By sharing the RNLI’s Float to Live advice, you can help save more lives – like Ruth’s – this summer. So be a lifesaver and pass it on.

If you find yourself unexpectedly in the water, follow these steps: 

  1. Fight your instinct to thrash around. 
  2. Lean back, extending your arms and legs and pushing your stomach up to the surface. 
  3. If you need to, gently move your arms and legs to help you float. 
  4. Float until you can control your breathing. 
  5. Only then, call out for help or swim to safety. 

If you see someone else in trouble in water at the coast, call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard. Don’t go in after them.

Find out more about Respect The Water