Lorenzo’s story: ‘If you want to learn to pray, go to sea’

Stranded in the water off the Ballybunion coast, Lorenzo Cubeddu faced the most difficult 6 hours of his life. Here is the incredible story of his survival.

Lorenzo Cubeddu moved to Ireland from Sardinia in 1998. A keen watersport enthusiast, he has taken courses from the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), as well as learning to be a windsurfing and sailing instructor. He even trained to be an RNLI lifeguard and sailed on an ocean passage. 

Lorenzo windsurfs regularly off the west coast of Ireland. He had never had any trouble until one fateful day in November 2018. 

Hear Lorenzo’s story, in his own words:

'Completely stranded'

It was 11 November, and I was at the beach in Ballybunion around 2pm. I spent an hour checking out the sea state before heading into the water – the wind was steady and constant with good sunny periods. 

After a while, the wind was on and off, making it difficult to stay upwind – especially with the push of the incoming tide and the chop and swells. Because of the leeway (sideways drifting), I couldn’t get back to shore. But I had found myself in these kind of conditions before and I was always able to make it back to the launching point.

So I kept trying to make ground upwind for a while, only to realise that I had drifted too far from the beach and was facing the cliffs every time I sailed back. The last thing I tried before ending up in difficulty was sailing out as far as I could from the cliffs and the messy waters close to them. I wanted to avoid being crashed onto them by the push of the tide, and to give myself a good, safe distance from the cliffs with time to think about my next move before darkness arrived. 

At that point the wind died, leaving me completely stranded.

I was in the middle of the bay, lying on my board with no wind and daylight fading fast. I knew I could not sail back, so I had to make a decision: drop the rig and try to paddle back to land? Or stay with the board and hopefully drift to safety? Where I was at that moment, with the fading light, the large swells and my distance from land, I was too far to be seen by anyone.

Throughout it all, I kept myself calm, knowing that I could not afford to waste precious energy panicking. Staying in that mindset was my first priority as I entered into survival mode. So I made the decision, with little light remaining, to drop the sail and try to paddle back. I soon realised that I was not going to make it against the very strong tide. 

Lorenzo Cubeddu windsurfing

Photo: Lorenzo Cubeddu

'Make me go to sleep'

I found myself in the middle of nowhere, in pitch black darkness. I was out of space and time, just there in the present moment, praying to God. It was very surreal and even peaceful at times. Everything else disappeared and I found myself incredibly calm and hopeful. I didn't know I was going to react like that, nor that I had that fighting spirit in me. I’d never been in such an extreme life-threatening situation. 

Keeping a cool head and not panicking felt the right thing to do and my faith in God kept me strong. 

We have a saying in Italy: ‘If you want to learn to pray, go to sea.’ In that moment, it made perfect sense to me. I kept praying. I realised later that everyone I knew – and all of Ballybunion, including people without faith – were praying for me. I suppose that's where the peace came from. It was not natural but supernatural. It was also very sad as I thought of my wife. I did not feel ready to leave her. I imagined the reaction of the people at my funeral.

I had some company from the bioluminescent plankton lights washing over the board. I started to talk to them, greeting them as friends. I thought at some point that a whale was going to surface just beside me. I closed my eyes from time to time to protect them from the rain and sprays of water washing over me. I was aware of the weather and winds picking up in strength again.

After what felt like a long time, I started to feel the cold and the first symptoms of hypothermia kicked in. Even with the help of the neoprene wetsuit, boots and beanie hat, I was freezing. My position on the board did not help. I had half of my body in the water, making it very physically challenging and I was seasick a couple of times.

I heard a noise and saw the searchlight of the Coast Guard helicopter in the sky, looking for me. The helicopter flew right past me and disappeared into the distance. They could not see me. It was still very comforting that they were looking for me, which gave me new strength and hope. But towards the end I remember thinking: ‘OK, if this is it, please God don't make it last too long. Make me go to sleep,’ only to hear a voice in the back of my head:

‘Stay awake.’

RNLI Kilrush lifeboat

Photo: Andrew Walker

'Stay awake!'

My only chances of getting out of the situation were to be pushed back to land by the current, chop and swells, hopefully without getting injured or being crashed onto the cliffs. Or I had to make it through the night and hope to be found and rescued once it was daylight. 

I kept praying, saying: ‘God if you rescue me, I will give the glory to you.’ I felt as though I should have died several times already, so all I could do was to stay calm and strong for as long as I could.

Eventually I was pushed towards the cliffs. I jumped into the water, holding onto my board until the last moment before I reached land. I felt my way in the dark and found some strength to climb a cliff. My legs felt very stiff and I had cramp from lying on my board for so long. The first thing I wanted to do when I landed on the ledge of the cliff was to find a place to curl up and sleep, but the voice in the back of my head kept saying: ‘Stay awake!’

After climbing the rock part of the cliff, I found my way onto a steep grassy slope and pulled myself to the top. I was somewhere in the countryside, no idea where. I knew I had to keep walking to find help. I felt the chill more than when I was in the water and I found myself wondering if I would be better off having stayed there. 

I walked robotically between edges, ditches, climbing over gates and fences. I even received a few shocks from electric fences! Eventually I noticed a little light to my right. I walked towards it and saw it was coming from a mobile home. I knocked on the door, and a man with blue eyes and a big beard answered. He looked at me, puzzled, before eventually letting me inside and calling for help. A garda soon arrived and, after giving an account of my ordeal, I was finally able to call my wife, who’d had to go through all those long hours enduring the horrible wait.

An ambulance arrived and I was taken to hospital in Limerick. I remember the noise of the rain on the ambulance roof throughout the drive. The paramedics told me later that, by the time we arrived at the hospital, my body temperature had stabilised. I was kept in the hospital for 3 days, mainly to flush out an enzyme (CPK) from my bloodstream, caused by the extreme muscle effort I put in during my long ordeal at sea.

'I made a mistake that nearly cost me my life'

I discovered I’d made the news after a few days in hospital, and I really thought that it was a joke. Never in my wildest dreams had I expected so much interest from the media. My wife and I are normal people and we didn't really know what to do. I was just happy to be alive. But my wife had to deal with reporters and newspapers, while trying to recover from the emotional rollercoaster of it all.

As human beings, we are capable of incredible things and the moral of my story is to never give up, no matter what your situation. Having said that, I made a mistake that nearly cost me my life by not having a means of communication and something visible at night to show my position. It would have saved my wife, family, friends and colleagues a lot of trauma. Now, I would not go out to sea without a reliable means of calling for help, in my case a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).  

After my ordeal, the safety aspect of watersports has become very important. It can be the difference between life and death, and we need to respect the power of the sea. I did a lot of research on safety devices for watersport users, as mobile phones aren’t always reliable and their coverage can be affected by many factors. They were never designed for use in the water as sea safety devices. 

Life is a precious gift. We should not take things for granted – everything is temporary and can change in a split second. We are in this world to help each other. My journey in life, now more than ever, is to be the best person I can ever be.

Lorenzo Cubeddu with his personal locator beacon

Photo: Lorenzo Cubeddu

Lorenzo was able to tell his story. Many others are not. Carrying a means of calling for help is often the difference between life and death. No matter if you are fishing, kayaking, windsurfing, or just going for a walk along the coast. Find out more about the different ways to call for help by reading our guide on how to call for help at sea. And read more about Lorenzo’s journey at windsurfsurvival.com.

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