EXPERIENCED sweep Peter Spence was on pretty good terms with himself as he guided the Palm Beach open men's boat crew around the cans for the journey back to the beach in the quarter-finals of last month's Australian Surf Lifesaving titles.
With a bronze and silver medal already, following podium finishes with the under-23 and 19s men's crew, the open team was a good chance of adding a gold to the tally to complete a very good carnival on the Gold Coast.
If they could just negotiate the set looming way out the back, Palm Beach looked specials to finish in the top three and grab a spot in the semi-final on the last day.
The first wave of the set, an ugly 3m monster, had other ideas. Trapped with little water under it, the boat nose-dived and jack-knifed, scattering the Palmy crew. Four of them resurfaced and waited for Spence to order them back into the boat.
Instead, there was eerie silence. Spence had been knocked unconscious and was floating face down in the impact zone. He was in big trouble.
"I remember everything that happened in the race up right up until we nosedived," the 54-year-old told the Northern Beaches Review.
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"We've all rolled boats before and nosedived, but this was quite a violent one. The boat obviously pitched in such a way that it's knocked me in the face and knocked me unconscious straight away, which is your greatest fear in the water.
"They (the crew) noticed something was wrong when we came up and they didn't hear me screaming to back in the boat, as I normally would. They then saw my helmet floating face down, but another wave came before they could get to me."
That's where this story could so easily have been an obituary, if not for the extraordinary actions of those in the water and medical experts back on the beach. After crewmate Gus Robinson reached Spence and helped transport him back to the sand on a jet ski, unconscious and blue in the face, work began to keep him alive.
After spewing up litres of saltwater on the beach and in the back of the ambulance, the father of two woke up the next day in Gold Coast University Hospital. His list of injuries included a fractured eye socket, a broken nose, water on the lungs, severe concussion and, two weeks on, a severe case of vertigo.
"I am a realist. I know how lucky I am. If I didn't come to the surface again, I wouldn't be here now talking to you," Spence said. "(Crewmate) Angus Cooke saw me in hospital the next day and said 'I'm not going to lie. I thought you were dead'."
But despite the closest of shaves, Spence won't be hanging up his oar.
He said: "It was a bad accident and a serious one, but I'll be back in the boat with my crews next year. It's not going to put me off and I don't want it to put anyone off. It was simply wrong place, wrong time."
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