What does it feel like to nearly drown?

Lea Millett-Clay had a near-drowning experience as a seven-year-old child, living in South Africa. In 2022, she took part in a SwimTayka Channel Relay swim. Here she shares her story.

Swimming is good for us. We know this, and you know this – otherwise you wouldn’t be reading Outdoor Swimmer. But there is a darker side to being in the water. It’s a dangerous territory and is the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide. This is why UK charity SwimTayka is on a mission to turn the tide around and teach children to swim and be safe.

Imagine you’re on holiday, on a wonderfully idyllic, pristine beach, walking along with your feet in the cool water. You stop for a moment to admire the view, smell the sea air and feel the warm sun on your face. You’re not too deep so you stand firmly, feeling your toes in the sand, as the water touches just below your knees. The foamy waves wash up against your legs and draw back as you admire being in such a beautiful place. You take a moment to enjoy it and breathe.

Suddenly you notice your legs. They’re not in the water anymore! The water has drawn back, all the way back. It’s down at your ankles. You look up in disbelief and see the water gathering before you, rising in size, almost towering above you now. Growing. Rising. Higher and higher. As the backwash builds, the water starts to curl over you – a monstrous wave. A split second seems like an eternity and you realise there’s no escape! 

The voice in your head yells, “What are you waiting for? RUN!” Only you discover your feet are glued in the sand. You can’t move. It all happens so fast. And the wave, the enormous, growing, beast of a wave, the wave comes crashing down. Gasping for air. Grabbing at the surface. Trying to breathe. Trying to find a way out. You’re thrown backwards with force again and again – sucked into the water. All you can hear is crashing and rumbling. You try to see which way is up – but the sand – there’s so much sand. It’s scratching your eyes, it’s in your ears, in your mouth – murky, salty, gritty and it burns. You can’t breathe. HELP! 

The water – it’s everywhere. There’s a light. Is that the sun? But then it’s gone. Wait, there it is again, but then you can’t see anything clearly. You keep tumbling over and over… Swallowed, under the water. Rolling, reaching for a surface, always just out of your grasp, tossed back and forth. “Over here! I’m over HERE!” you try to scream. “Can anybody see me?  ‘I’m over here – HELP!” You can’t reach up, or reach down. You try to grab the ground and hold on. Wait, which way is that? You can’t see anything. You can’t breathe. You try to call out, but all you can do is gulp in more ocean. Salt and sand scrape through your nose and down your throat as the sea throws your legs back over your head, one last time. And then, darkness.

Lea was lucky, she survived. She was tossed by the wave onto the shore. She could so nearly not have been. She’s sharing the story and has fundraised for SwimTayka, to help prevent others from drowning. You can help too, by joining in a SwimTayka Channel Relay swim and raising funds to they can continue their important work. swimtayka.org

Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.