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Displaying items by tag: Lorenzo Cubeddu

In the second of three extracts from Lorna Siggins’ new book, Search and Rescue, the journalist and regular contributor revisits the fateful day in November 2018 when a sudden wind drop left windsurfer Lorenzo Cubeddu cast adrift off Ballybunion in fading daylight…

When Italian-born Lorenzo Cubeddu set out for a short windsurfing spin off his local beach in north Kerry one November afternoon, he met an angler he knew on the strand and they had a chat about the weather. Further up the beach, Lorenzo’s wife, Amanda, was struck by the image of two experienced men of the sea chatting near the Atlantic shoreline and took a photograph. Some time later, she remarked that this could have been the last photo she had of him alive.

Lorenzo had moved to Ireland from Sardinia in 1998, drawn by his love of sailing, windsurfing and diving. He trained as an RNLI lifeguard, windsurfing and dinghy instructor, and participated in ocean-going sailing. After he met Amanda, they settled in Inch East in Kerry, and he took a job at the SuperValu in Ballybunion.

On that particular day, 11 November 2018, he had spent an hour checking the sea state before heading out from Ballybunion beach around 3 p.m. The wind was steady and constant, with good sunny periods, he remembered. 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. The leeway or sideways drifting prevented him from getting back to shore, but he had found himself in these conditions before and was always able to make it back to his point of launching.

“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. I wanted to avoid being crashed onto them by the push of the tide and waves, and to give myself a good, safe distance from the cliffs with time to think about my next move before darkness arrived.”

However, the wind then dropped completely, leaving him stranded in the middle of the bay, lying on his board with daylight fading. “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 that moment, with the fading light, the large swells and my distance from land, I was too far to be seen by anyone...”

He knew that if he panicked, he would not make it at all. He detached the sail, knowing it could have dragged him in the water like an anchor. “It was a hard decision, but I had no choice, so I lay on my stomach on the board.”

However, the tide was too strong to make headway. Darkness was closing in, and he began to lose his bearings. “We have a saying in Italy: ‘If you want to learn to pray, go to sea.’ And in that moment it made perfect sense to me,” Lorenzo said. “I keep a very simple but strong faith. So I was praying a lot, and I realised later that everyone I knew – and all of Ballybunion and beyond – was praying for me, which was very humbling.”

‘I got the phone call that you never want to get, and no one ever wants to make’

Lorenzo worked to hold a calm mindset, knew he was in survival mode, and felt very peaceful”. “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.”

Bioluminescent plankton lights flickered over his board, and he conversed with the tiny organisms as he felt they represented “life and company … a little miracle of light in the darkness”.

The weather was changing, the wind was picking up and there was a 4-metre swell on the Fenit side of the bay. Still lying on his stomach, with his hands up at the bow and trying not to swallow the sea water which was splashing over his head, he had to close his eyes to protect them from the stinging spray and the rain. Breathing methods he had practised at home began to help.

“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.” He knew his position on the board was not helping, as half of his body was in the water, and he was seasick a few times. “If you think of being in the same position for so many hours, it was not surprising.”

Then, he heard a noise – a distinctive, comforting roar in the sky ‒ and spotted the searchlight of a Coast Guard helicopter. It flew past and disappeared into the distance. He knew he wasn’t quite in range for the helicopter’s ‘Nightsun’ light or its thermal imaging camera. Though the crew hadn’t seen him, and he knew he was just a tiny speck in a black ocean, he drew great comfort from the knowledge that a search had begun. It gave him “new strength and hope” and pushed him “harder to survive”.

Back on shore, Lorenzo’s wife, Amanda, had rung him a few times, but got no answer. Normally, they would have a lot of phone contact. She had an unsettled feeling. “Then I got the phone call that you never want to get, and no one ever wants to make: confirmation from Lorenzo’s boss Cormac Cahill in SuperValu that Lorenzo was missing at sea, and a search was underway,” Amanda said.

Amanda fell to the floor in a terrified physical state. Her friends called to the house and picked her up to drive her to the sea to look for her husband. She recalled it was “excruciating, as all in the car knew they were facing hours of horror”.

As the time passed, Lorenzo found himself saying, ‘Okay, if this is it, please God don’t make it last too long…’

The first thing she remembered noticing was how dark it was as she stared out into what seemed like an abyss. She was reassured by the lights of the rescue service trucks and the Garda car and knew they would do everything they could to find him. She could hear the Coast Guard helicopter and its large searchlights gave her hope. She remembered how her shock turned to gratitude, as she saw how the cliff was lined with people from Ballybunion.

“There were many others also, and I couldn’t believe they were there for us ‒ people kneeled to pray, words of firm encouragement, and I felt very humbled,” she said.

Cormac, Lorenzo’s boss, offered Angela the sort of support she will never forget, both then and in the days after. “When my energy was flagging, Cormac kept showing me Lorenzo’s details on WhatsApp ‒ it said, “never give up never surrender”. All our friends stood shoulder to shoulder with me, some just far enough away to give me space but close enough so I could read their eyes.”

She said An Garda Síochána also kept a very close eye on her, ensuring she sat in the front of the squad car. She joked with them that this was her first time in custody. Several times, she tried to get out of the car near the edge of the cliffs to call his name, believing he might possibly hear her. One friend said very firmly, “It will be alright, I’m sure that fella has ended up in Clare!”

Waves of panic alternated with waves of hope, every minute seemed like an hour, and Amanda remembered a sense of being in an unbearable nightmare. At the same time, people who had never met him were now abseiling down cliffs, searching beaches and fields, praying in the local church, and supplying sandwiches and coffee, and she felt sure that Lorenzo could “feel this outpouring of love on the water”.

At 9.30 p.m., with no word still, Amanda said she decided to “send him a prayer to rest in peace, in case he needed that from me”. A group of her friends prayed with her for his body to be found. Her thoughts turned to telling his elderly mother, his family in Italy and her own family in Dublin.

‘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’

As the time passed at sea, Lorenzo fought off exhaustion and found himself saying, “Okay, if this is it, please God don’t make it last too long … make me go to sleep.” But he heard a voice in his head urging him to stay awake. His knew his only chance of survival now was to be “pushed back to land by the current, chop and swells, hopefully without getting injured or being crashed onto the cliffs”, or to make it through the night at sea.

“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.”

He suddenly heard a swishing, crashing noise that made him think he was near land or cliffs, and to his delight he was right.
Being so near the coast, though, he knew he was in danger of being dashed on rocks. He had to gamble on letting go of the board to try to find his footing.

‘I threw the board away with all the force I could, as it could be “game over’ if the board hit me on the head. I took one leap and landed on a ledge! Then I was faced with climbing a jagged cliff, arms nearly giving way with exhaustion. I struggled for hand holds to haul myself up. Miraculously, grass at the top held my body weight.”

Fortunately, he had some small protection as he was also wearing his neoprene booties for the first time in months ‒ windsurfing is normally better in bare feet. Standing at the top of the cliff in the darkness, he had no idea where he was and there was no sign of life or lights. He was more aware of the cold now and his body was cramping up.

“The first thing I had wanted to do when I landed on the ledge was to find a place to curl up and sleep, but the voice in the back of my head kept saying: “Stay awake!”” He began to wonder if he had been better off in the ocean, as he started to trudge “robotically between hedges, ditches, climbing over gates and fences. I even received a few shocks from electric fences!” He remembered laughing out loud and exclaiming, “Really?!”

After a while his eyes adjusted to the dark, and he noticed a little light to his right. It came from a mobile home. A man with blue eyes and a big beard answered his knock, and his first words were a plea – “Don’t rob me.”

The man’s terrified gaze then turned to one of puzzlement; he had heard a report on Clare FM radio of a missing man at sea and realised who Lorenzo was. He brought him in, put a coat around him and phoned for help, telling Lorenzo he had not charged his phone in weeks but had done so just the night before. He gave him a cup of tea from his gas fire, telling the windsurfer that he had been a fisherman for many years…

From Chapter 14, South-west Sea Sense. Search and Rescue: True Stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 by Lorna Siggins is published by Merrion Press, €16.95/£14.99 PBK.

Published in Book Review

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