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Surfer Matthew may have been lost in a hostile sea, but he was not alone as he clung on to life

In an often indifferent world, there are still people who will risk all for their fellow human beings, writes Gail Walker

The rescue of Scottish surfer Matthew Bryce 13 miles off the Northern Ireland coast was well-nigh miraculous. Not just because that one life was saved, of course. There are escapes from death every day.

But the elemental nature of Matthew's plight is what makes his story so fearsome and compelling. The 23-year-old went out surfing off Westport on the Kintyre peninsula on a normal Sunday morning. But strong winds and currents swept the young man 16 miles into the middle of the Irish Sea.

One solitary man and the vastness of the sea. For 32 hours.

That's one full day-and-a-half.

There is something so appalling in this story, this modern exposure.

Recovering in the Ulster Hospital, Matthew described how, unable to get back to shore, he just lay on top of his surfboard. "It got to the point where my paddling was ineffective but I was doing it to keep myself warm. It was incredibly lonely and quiet because there was just nothing, just waves."

It's an image to haunt the imagination. For it is our instinct to constantly seek perspective, to know our place in the vast cosmos.

But that perhaps is a little bit too much perspective - a reminder that, on our own, we are little more than a drifting dot on an endless sea. Paddle as we may we will not make much headway against the waves and winds.

After hours of drifting further into the Irish Sea, Matthew had "made peace" with himself that he would not make it. On the second day of his struggle he watched the sun set, convinced that he would not survive another night. "I knew I had maybe three hours and I was pretty certain that I was going to die with that sunset."

Is it possible to imagine that? Knowing that you are going to die? Not in some vague way (after all, we all know that we are going to die) but right now, at this particular time - sunset on Sunday, April 30, 2017, give or take an hour. To feel the will to fight, to survive, just drain away when faced with the enormity of nature.

But the point of Matthew Bryce's story is that he wasn't alone. Back in Campbelltown there was another world, a network of family, friends, acquaintances and, let's face it, just people who cared because, well, that's what human beings do. On Kate Bush's sublime The Ninth Wave album, about someone almost drowning during a long night in the sea, there is a song - Watching You Without Me - in which she imagines her loved ones going about their simple routines oblivious to her near-death. How wonderfully beautiful the ordinary can be. What was that for Matthew? Thinking of relatives settling down to watch Line Of Duty? The Durrells?

The report of Matthew going missing sparked a huge effort, co-ordinated by Belfast Coastguard, with RNLI lifeboats from Kintyre, Isley and Red Bay, a helicopter from Prestwick and rescue teams from Campbelltown, Southend, Gigha, Tarbert and Port Ellen.

These are not hubs of influence or opinion. They rarely get the media nod. Small places filled with people with big hearts.

Call it what you will - compassion, empathy, sympathy, sensibility, ethics - those rescue teams defied uncaring nature and set out to do what they could. We shouldn't take the efforts and sacrifices of our rescue services for granted. Only in March rescue team helicopter R116 crashed off the coast of Mayo, killing four. Last September a volunteer Irish coastguard died off Co Clare in a search for a missing man.

It was people like those who rescued Matthew, who spoke so movingly in his interview with BBC NI's Chris Buckler of the moment he first sighted the helicopter. "I jumped off the board and I lifted the board up and I started waving the board in the water and they flew right over, I thought they'd missed me. But then they turned round... these guys were the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I owe them my life."

And he does. Sometimes in the face of an indifferent universe it is all we've got: people who care because they just do. People who put their very lives at risk for others.

Matthew's story reminds us that the genuine goodness of others defies our aloneness. We can think about our lives as completely isolated individuals, owing nothing to anyone, being 'entitled' to things, choosing to be one thing or another.

We are encouraged to be repelled by ideas of not being 'self-reliant', of relying on other people for support or money or food or a roof over our heads. All those things are anathema to how we think a 'good' or 'successful' life is lived.

We are encouraged to act as if we had no links to anyone, were beholden to nobody, relied on no one. But the reality is, when it all comes down to it, we are only worth something because other people consider us to be valuable in ourselves. Not because of what we can give them or what they can gain from us. Other people who will risk their very lives to find us, to bring us back alive, to save us.

We have a very powerful respect for those members of our society who are 'rescuers', first responders, defenders and protectors. Or we should have. Mostly, we hope we won't have to be at the centre of their attention.

But it is nonetheless because of them that we can pretend we live in a world where you can't depend on anyone else for anything. Everyone else is out for themselves and we should be too. It would be foolish to show more concern for anyone than they would for us. Charity begins at home, and so, in reality, it doesn't begin at all. More fool me. More fool you. More fool all of us.

You can only expect anything worthwhile from those closest to us, who have an investment in us or in whom we have an investment.

And yet, in dire misfortune, like Matthew Bryce, when absolutely everything else has failed, the people who will make every effort to bring us ashore are people who owe us not a single thing.

People who expect nothing from us.

People who, in fact, don't know us at all.

Now that's what I call miraculous.

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