Anyone who knows me will be aware that “I do love a boat trip” and they generally feature on my trips and holidays. Indeed, in April I enjoyed a very windy, rather pitch-and-roll tour on a pleasure boat round Ilfracombe bay, with my daughter and grandchildren.
About as far from this as one could get, I was among the guests boarding the Silver Sturgeon at HMS President in London on Tuesday 21 May. The event was the launch of the Tidal Thames Water Safety Forum’s Drowning Prevention Strategy. In a unique collaboration, The Port of London Authority, The Metropolitan Police, London Fire Brigade, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, London Ambulance Service and Maritime & Coastguard Agency have come together to produce a Drowning Prevention Strategy for the tidal Thames along its 95-mile course, from Teddington to the North Sea.
It is a sad fact that although the number of accidental water incidents is gradually reducing, there is a rise in the number of people intentionally entering the water for purposes of harm.
Each organisation pledges its individual contribution to the strategy which has devolved in part from the UK National Drowning Prevention Strategy launched in 2016, which aims to halve the incidence of accidental drowning by 2026 and reduce risk.
The scope of the Forum is to prevent accidental and self-harm drownings in the Thames by working in partnership. The aim of the Forum is to reduce the number of deaths in and on the tidal Thames by targeting a strategy of ‘zero harm’.
I believe that the Forum’s strategy will be seen as a model for innovation and change in managing water safety in other parts of the UK as well as the Thames, a view echoed by other national organisations such as RoSPA.
In the run up to the day, there was a high level of confidentiality surrounding the identity of the principal guest, HRH the Duke of Cambridge and I had been sworn to secrecy! It was difficult not to feel excited at the prospect of meeting a member of the Royal family who would have a significant influence on the impact of the strategy.
I had been invited to the event through my association with the RNLI and Fire and Rescue organisations. Another bereaved mother and water safety advocate, Beckie Ramsay, was also invited. Beckie is an ardent campaigner in memory of her son Dylan whose life was taken in an accident in a gravel pit local to their home in Lancashire nearly eight years ago. With the tragic link of our similar loss in common, we made contact via social media and arranged to meet in London. We spent the evening before the meeting talking about James and Dylan and preparing ourselves as best we could for the prospect of the following day.
HRH The Duke of Cambridge had specifically asked to speak with families who knew the impact of losing a loved one to drowning, and Beckie and I were to have the privilege of a personal conversation with him at the end of the meeting, after the formal presentations.
Tuesday 21 May dawned. We were blessed with clear blue skies and London sparkled in the sunshine. A short taxi ride brought us to HMS President and from there, all the guests boarded the Silver Sturgeon.
Beckie and I waited nervously in the boat’s salon for the Duke’s arrival. He was brought on board and introduced to representatives of the partner organisations before coming to meet us. A member of the Royal household gave us a few tips on protocol and suddenly, he was approaching us – it was rather a surreal moment!
The Duke sat down at a table with us and after our introductions, his opening comment was,
“Gosh, what a lovely warm morning, I had to take off my jumper!”
Such an ordinary opener to conversation put us at our ease and Beckie and I were able to talk to him about Dylan and James. We were able to emphasise the importance of water safety awareness and drowning prevention from our individual and personal perspectives. As a cause close to my heart, I was able to say, “I am pleased to see you are wearing a Respect the Water badge.” This had been given to him by the RNLI’s Neil Withers, one of the key team members of the event.
As the conversation between the three of us was private, I feel it would be wrong to reprise it, but I will say that throughout the time we had, it was obvious that the Duke was listening intently and Beckie and I could see that he had great empathy for our situations. His comments were insightful and he was easy to talk to.
I was delighted to be allowed to give the Duke a signed copy of my book, Into the Mourning Light. Similarly, Beckie was able to present him with two ‘Doing it for Dylan’ tee shirts.
Afterwards we were thrilled to have informal photographs taken with the Duke by the Fire Brigade’s Emma Fraser, who did a fantastic job of looking after both Beckie and I throughout the event.
The Samaritans were represented at the launch. Jonny Benjamin, whose suicide was effectively prevented by passer by Neil Laybourn in 2008, gave moving testimony to the power of simple conversation to save a life. This was further emphasised by the Duke of Cambridge who said, “A simple ‘Hello, how are you?’ is sometimes all it takes to save a life.
Much networking ensued during the boat trip that followed, and I enjoyed new introductions and re-acquaintance with members of the partner organisations.
I am sure I also speak for Beckie when I express sincere appreciation for the warmth, kindness and support shown to us by everyone with whom we came into contact on Tuesday.
Sharing a traumatic tragic event is never easy. It does not matter how much time has passed; the initial telling of the story is invariably a tug on the heart. But the ability to introduce our sons’ names into so many other people’s lives can only bring positive results.
Raising awareness of the danger of any body of water, however innocuous it looks, remains key to the objectives of any present and future strategy.
Every life lost to water is a life too many.
Every life lost to water affects an immeasurable number of people.
Parents like Beckie and I – indeed, any parents who have lost dearly loved children are best placed to understand the truly awful impact of our loss. By sharing our stories and raising the profile of the surrounding issues, we draw something positive out of our tragedy. Our heartfelt desire to prevent others experiencing the heartache that we live with on a daily basis is validated to an extent by strong calls to action such as this strategy. We cannot change the past, but we can influence the future.
As the Minister, Jackie Doyle-Price MP, says, “Lasting positive change can only be achieved through clear leadership and close collaboration between policy makers, authorities and the public.” The drive and commitment displayed by each individual whom we met last Tuesday bodes well for the desired strength in collaboration for the future.