My near-escape from a sandy and watery death…
I was on holiday last month in West Wittering, renting a house not far from the stunning beach and scenic walks up on East Head. Given it was late November, the place was almost deserted and the tiny hamlet perched on the edge of the south coast felt more like a ghost town. For me, this only added to its charm. It was my second time here in as many months – I’d fallen in love with the place for its scenic walks and stunning sand beaches; as a Londoner this was something I’d always felt drawn to. In addition, I wanted to give my darling dog, Misha, as many fun experiences as possible and I he just loves the sea – not so much for swimming but for paddling and racing across the sand, spurred on by the crashing waves and high winds.
On our second day it poured, but by late afternoon the rain had eased off to a light drizzle so I set off on a long walk with Misha, and my mother, now in her late seventies. I was trying to follow a circular walk I’d found online, across East Head and down to the beach then back up to where we were staying through the village. After about an hour, I must have taken a wrong turn because there was no mention of quicksand or marshland on the trail. However, I couldn’t have gone very far out of my way and, shockingly, the way we approached at least, there was not a single sign or warning about the quicksand. Later, I’d discover that not only was this beach an area well-known to locals who knew all about its dangers, but people were constantly getting stuck there and having to be rescued: just a week before, two young women had needed to be rescued from the sand by the coastguard, and shortly before that an escaped cow and ended up there and had sunk all the way up to its neck!
To us, it looked like just another section of the beach – although there were some darker patches further out that I hadn’t noticed anywhere else and access to the sand was fairly difficult. There were lots of rocky and jagged pieces to walk across when we emerged from the woods and my mother didn’t want to get her trendy ankle boots wet so stayed back as Misha and I made our way out across the beach towards the line of the incomining tide. It was still raining lightly and beginning to get dark. Misha raced ahead and reached the sea in no time where he paddled and ran about quite happily. I was taking my time as the sea was still quite far out. I noticed the sand was starting to get very soft and sort of swampy as I moved forwards but my lack of countryside experience meant I thought that this was just due to the rain and that it was perfectly normal to suddenly find myself having to put considerable effort into pulling up each foot as I walked. Misha was still galloping about at the waterline and the sand looked far less murky and much, much firmer where he was, so once that walking like this became a real pain in the neck, it seemed to me to be more sensible to head for the firmer sand than backtrack all the way I’d just come.
And then very suddenly, as soon as I reached the sea’s edge, one of my Wellington boots disappeared into the sand as far up as my calf, and while I struggled to pull that boot up with my hands, the other boot did exactly the same thing. I kept losing my balance and falling over onto my hands until it got to the point where both boots were so firmly stuck that I couldn’t progress any further. I called out to my mother – now just a tiny spot in the distance – to give me a hand, but the wind was strong and she was so far back that she couldn’t possibly have heared me. Later, I found out she thought I was gesturing simply to get her to join me by the water’s edge, which she didn’t want to do.
I was getting annoyed at my situation by this point because my boots were now waterlogged with sandy water and I couldn’t remain standing upright because my boots were still stuck in a very awkward position. However, I didn’t realise how much danger I was in until I noticed my feet were not just stuck but actually still sinking, and that now I was on all fours with my backside in tha air, my hands and arms had started sinking as well. I had this sucking, cloying concoction of sand and water right up to my knees and elbows, so couldn’t even get up to gesture to my mother anymore, and the sea was now lapping all around me and it was getting properly dark. Worse, I could feel myself still sinking deeper and deeper. Then, I noticed the water around me was steadily rising – the waves were moving closer to me with each passing second. I remembered I’d checked the tides before we came out and that it would soon be high tide and completely dark. And at that point, I realised I was either going to drown as the water rose above me while I remained stuck on the sea bed, or I was gong to be buried by the sand.
That’s when I started to panic. I tried to pull my feet out of my boots but the sand and seawater had caused a kind of suction inside each boot making them absolutely impossible to dislodge (later, when we finally made it home, I had to cut my remaining boot off my leg the suction was so strong!). I scanned the darkening beach and woodland beyond – there wasn’t a single soul to be seen, the only sign of humanity was a house in the distance, with not a single light on – West Wittering is known for its abundance of weekend and holiday homes. We had walked so far and the weather was so bad that there was really no one out there for miles around and my mobile phone was now useless, swimming about in a pocket of sandy water. I could not move for the life of me; it was as if I had cuffs round my ankles and wrists and, as Misha came over to sniff and lick my face, I began to cry at the thought of him watching me die so horribly.
After a while, as if by some miracle, my mother showed up. I hadn’t even noticed her approach. Small and incredibly light, she managed not to get stuck in the sand herself by moving very quickly across it. For several minutes she worked on trying to dislodge one of my boots from the sand but it was just impossible. So instead she tried to get my leg out of the boot. It took ages and was a major struggle but she has always been freakishly strong, and somehow she finally managed to pull my socked foot free. After a lot of wriggling, I managed to free my other foot, with its boot still on. My mother was shouting at me to spread out my weight across the sand and crawl but by this time, my fibromyalgia had properly kicked in, making me suddenly feel desperately weak and exhausted. Shouting at me constantly to try harder – Hurry up! Come on! Faster! – my mother somehow managed to crawl at my side while maintaining a vice-like grip around my upper arm, pulling me after her. I remember looking up from the wet sand I was now crawling through and seeing the huge stretch of beach that ended with the rocky section which was firm ground, and it was like staring at the mirage of an oasis in the desert – not quite real but so desperately needed, and so painfully far away that I thought I’d never reach it. I was now sobbing with fear, pain and exhaustion, crying that I just couldn’t go on while my mother shouted insults at me in the hope that in return my anger would somehow fuel my energy reserves. I knew why: there was no way she could drag me to safety on her own so I had to keep on moving, and at the rate the sea was coming in, by the time she would have made it back to the village for help I’d be in a tomb of sandy water. But all the fear in the world couldn’t force my muscles to keep going and I remember thinking what a weird sensation it was to tell a muscle to do something and have it simply refuse. Crawling through the wet sand, I first felt the muscles in my forearms give up and suddenly landed on my elbows with my face inches above the water. Next, the muscles in my left thigh just went and I had to drag my leg behind me rather than use it to push me forwards. My mother is a master at staying calm in even the worst of situations, but I knew from the way she kept yelling at me to keep crawling and move faster that the situation was bad, very bad. And she had been brought up by the sea and knew most of its dangers. I remember, between sobs, shouting back at her, thinking she didn’t understand it wasn’t my fault that my muscles were refusing to work. And finally I remember reaching the rocks, my waterlogged clothes so heavy with wet sand, and thinking there was no way I could be expected to take a single step. But we had to. It was dark and I was seriously cold – teeth chattering and shivering so hard I could barely speak. My boot hadn’t been the only casualty, Misha’s lead had also been abandoned in the silt, so we had to unfasten one side of his harness to use as a tiny lead. It was almost all dirt track going back so the ground was covered with thousands of those tiny, sharp stones that cut relentlessly into my shoeless foot.
I was on the point of complete collapse when a van overtook us on the woodland path and we flagged it down to ask if I could have a ride. Despite the fact I was soaking wet and even my face was covered with grey silt, the driver graciously let me into his cab and dropped me off by the house. Misha and my mother weren’t far behind and that’s when we had to cut off my remaining boot with nail scissors, the only kind we had – because the suction caused by the sand and water inside was just too strong for either of us, and nothing else was going to get the boot off my foot by this point. I stripped on the outside porch, went inside and had the longest and hottest bath I’ve ever had, falling asleep in it six times before I finally managed to drag myself out and collapse on my bed. That night I was afraid I’d have nightmares but instead I slept, without waking, for sixteen hours straight! I was glad to be alive and incredibly grateful for my mother, without whom I would have surely perished out there. The rest of our holiday was untarnished and simply wonderful, but I had a newfound respect not just for the sea but for the sand, too, which I now knew could be incredibly dangerous. So if you ever find yourself walking on sand or mud and your feet begin to sink, my advice is to always turn around immediately, however firm you think the ground ahead might be!