Earlier this year, I was contacted by Andy, the Teddington RNLI Helm, who had read a local press article about the publication of my book, “Into the Mourning Light”. He asked me if I was aware of the RNLI’s work at Kingston which has become an intrinsic part of the liaison between the Council, Police, licensing trade and other authorities in working towards a safer riverside. Naturally I was able to tell him that we played a large part in instituting major changes at the riverside over the first three years following the accidental loss of James in 2005.
Following on from this, I was asked if I wished to become involved with the RNLI’s Respect the Water campaign, highlighting the risk of drowning around the coasts of the UK, including the tidal reaches of the River Thames. I was told that nine locations around the UK had been chosen for Respect the Water campaign activity, with Kingston upon Thames among them. The campaign would run from July 24, over the summer holidays.
I had a long conversation with Guy Addington, the RNLI’s Coastal Safety Manager in the South East, whose message for the campaign in regard to the Thames is very clear. He said,
“We’re trying to make people, particularly men, realise that they are at risk from drowning if they don’t follow some basic but important safety advice. Of course we want people to enjoy the river but we want them to understand there are risks, and that they should not underestimate the power of the water.
‘Thames water is cold year-round – not many people realise this. If you enter the water, intentionally or otherwise, you are at risk of cold water shock, which seriously impairs your ability to swim, and causes uncontrollable gasping, which can draw water into your lungs. Although you might want a few drinks in the sun by the riverside, remember that alcohol and water don’t mix, so if you have a drink, stay clear of the river’s edge and don’t enter the water”.
Ultimately I was put in contact with Ross Macleod, the RNLI’s Coastal Safety Manager who is coordinating and leading the marketing of the campaign. Ross visited me at home to learn James’ story and tell me all about the campaign. It was a long and fruitful afternoon. In particular, Ross told me of the aims of the campaign: to use facts about the water and its dangers, where possible to share life stories, ensure communication is adapted to local areas and to target the appropriate high risk group.
We agreed that I could usefully contribute by sharing what happened to James via articles and interviews. More specifically I was able to add my own input into the text incorporated into bespoke pint beer glasses. These would be available in pubs and clubs along the Thames, in an informed attempt to impress the dangers of the river on the target group of young men, who are most at risk.
It took great emotional toll for me to compose the words describing the loss of my son in such stark, succinct terms. I grappled with the concept for some time and I am glad that I was able to distance myself emotionally to the level of ability to do what was required.
Ross later told me of the feedback of the control group who tested the impact of the glasses, saying, “They all agreed that personalising the glass with James’ details added impact to the message – which already carries a great deal of power.”
The other innovative marketing tool which is being used in the RNLI campaign is the presence of a cubic metre of water, weighing one tonne and formed into a visual framed representation of a weight, placed at key locations. It was agreed that one of these would be placed at the riverside in Kingston and it was put in place in time for the ninth anniversary of our loss, when we made our annual visit to lay sunflowers at James’ memorial plaque.
This particular visual trigger has enormous impact. It is backed by England rugby star, James Haskell, who is supporting the Respect the Water campaign. He said, “As a rugby player, I train to be as strong as I can be. But I know from experience, that even I’m no match for the strength of the water. This campaign isn’t telling people not to go into the water – in fact, quite the opposite. The water is a great place to have fun and relax in the summer. This is about being smart and safe when you’re there. Water is the opponent that never tires, so make sure you’re never put to the test.”
Ultimately, this year I have learned a great deal about the RNLI and its operations. I have a far better understanding that their remit is to become proactive in terms of drowning prevention, rather than reactive after an event has happened. Historically, I think that in the UK we believe that the RNLI act as another emergency service, called out when people are in difficulties in the water. But I have learned that the scope of what the RNLI do is far wider than that. A visit to the RNLI College, which is also a hotel, further informed me with the free guided tour on offer, which is educational and thought provoking.
Today’s RNLI ethos accords with my own attempt to proactively traverse the grief path.
We have no way of measuring whether the safety improvements at Kingston have prevented further loss of life, but I am very glad to have been able to become involved with the RNLI’s measurable campaign. The aim of the RNLI is to halve drowning deaths by 2024 and I have no doubt this can be achieved, given the enthusiasm and support that is evident thus far.
Everything I do in my grieving process honours James’ memory and the telling and re-telling of his story is, for me as his mother, part of his legacy.
Written in loving memory of James Edward Clark. Never forgotten, always in our hearts.