Experience: I got sucked into a whirlpool

This September will mark the 10th anniversary of my trip to sail a raft down the Zambezi River. I was 45 and living with my young family in Devizes, Wiltshire, but had always wanted to visit Africa. When I read about the five-day white-water tour, it seemed the perfect way to do it.

I was struck by the heat and the aroma as I got off the plane in Zimbabwe, before travelling across the border to Livingstone, Zambia, to meet the rest of the team. Each of the rafts carried eight to 10 people, and we were split into two groups. Before starting our training, we had a riverboat ride and swam beneath Victoria Falls. I have wonderful memories of seeing elephants and hippos, and camping beside the river each night under skies filled with stars.

A decade before, I’d spent a couple of days rafting in New Zealand. But the Zambezi was on a different level. Rapids are graded on a scale of one to six, and we encountered a number of threes and fours – names like “Oblivion”, “The Washing Machine” and “The Devil’s Toilet Bowl” gave fair warning. The guides looked after us brilliantly though, and we pulled together as a team, so while the white water was thrilling, I never felt in any real danger.

Ghost Rider was the last rapid on the final day – a grade five with three enormous waves. I was at the front of our raft. We were all fired up and I remember singing. The first wave gave us no trouble, but as we hit the second the raft flipped and suddenly I was beneath it, trapped underwater.

We’d been told to swim away from the raft if it capsized, and that’s what I did. As I was swept downstream, I clung to my paddle, confident it and my lifejacket would help me stay afloat long enough to strike out towards the bank of the river. Instead, I was pulled under – and could feel myself spinning.

When I realised I was trapped in a whirlpool, my first instinct was to try to swim out of it, but this proved hopeless. I knew trying to fight it would use up what little oxygen I had in my lungs, so I tried to push the tip of the paddle out of the water, hoping someone would see it. I kept spinning and held my breath, terrified I’d reach a point where my body would make me breathe automatically, filling my lungs with water.

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An unbearable, fiery pain bloomed in my chest and I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness. I thought, “This is it,” pictured my kids and my wife, and said “Goodbye world.” They were my last thoughts until I heard a man’s voice repeatedly calling my name.

At first, it sounded as if the voice was coming from far away, but it seemed louder each time. I was told to open my eyes, and that’s when I realised I’d blacked out and was coming round on another raft. I remember gasping for breath, sitting up, and water flooding out of my nose – my sinuses had filled up. I was taken to the shore and led to a rock, where I sat down to recover.

I’ve since reviewed footage filmed by the GoPro camera attached to my helmet. The video shows I was underwater for almost three and a half minutes. I must have been dragged down almost to the riverbed, where the pull of the whirlpool lessened and released its hold. I was spotted face-down in the water and picked up by one of the kayakers – a man called Lovemore, who I’m still in touch with. He transferred me to the raft.

Despite passing out, I never let go of the paddle – there’s a photograph of me clutching it while recovering on the rock. When the magnitude of what I’d been through dawned on me, I broke down, and was comforted by other members of the crew.

Still, other than feeling absolutely shattered, I seemed to have escaped unscathed. I didn’t start to feel really unwell until I got back to the UK – my GP said it was necessary to prescribe antibiotics to prevent a nasty infection due to faecal matter in the river.

What happened was bad luck, but I’m glad I trained for six months in a local gym before heading out – I suspect I wouldn’t have survived so long underwater had my cardiovascular system been less strong. But when my son recently challenged me to sit on the bottom of a swimming pool for as long as I could, I caved in after about 10 seconds – holding my breath isn’t something I’m going to do again for fun.

• As told to Chris Broughton

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