I Was Paralysed And Trapped In The sea

A day out at the beach surfcasting turned into a hellish nightmare for Duncan
  • Duncan Torwick, 47, from Akina in New Zealand, went surfcasting last year with his dog, Daisy
  • Casting the rod, he stumbled and fell backwards
  • Realising he was paralysed, he thought he was ‘a goner’ when the tide bean to roll in…

Here, Duncan tells his story in his own words.

Popping my mixed breed pup Daisy into my car, I drove to the beach so I could cast a line off the shore.

I’d been beach fishing – also known as surfcasting – since I was four, when my grandparents Eileen and Frank showed me the ropes.

It was the ultimate escape. Parking at Haumoana Beach, in Hawke’s Bay, NZ, around 5pm, I loved its seclusion. I was often the only one there.

‘Come on, girl,’ I said to Daisy, walking her on the lead down to the water.

After securing her to one of the rod holders, I went to fetch my gear.

Setting up, I rigged my two rods with bait. Casting them out one by one into the calm surf, I then popped them into metal rod holders, which had been wedged into the sand. After 90 minutes, I’d caught a gurnard.

We’ll have a feast tonight, I thought, popping the fish into my cooler.

Re-casting the rod, I suddenly stumbled, falling backwards onto the dry sand with a hard thump.

Trying to get up, I found I was frozen.

Why can’t I move? I thought, only able to wiggle my neck from side to side.

I was paralysed!

Duncan surfcasting
Duncan loves to surfcast at different beaches (Credit: Supplied.)

‘As salty water filled my mouth and nostrils, I worried that I’d drown’

Daisy stayed eerily silent as I screamed out for help, but there was no-one around.

Thankfully it was summer, so there was still some time before sunset. But, after almost an hour, I began to feel the tide rolling in, the salt water lapping at my face. Staring at the sky, unable to move, panic set in.

Before I knew it, the tide had come in so much that the choppy sea had flipped me over.

Now I was floating face down in the water!

At the mercy of the waves, I’d twist my head left and right when I could, to catch a breath and scream out for help. But as salty water filled my mouth and nostrils, I worried that I’d drown.

I’m a goner, I thought after what felt like an eternity. I was exhausted from fighting the waves and gasping for snatches of air.

Now it was just on dusk.

I don’t want to die, I thought.

Suddenly, Daisy began barking.

And I knew help had arrived when I heard a guy asking if I was okay.

‘I’m paralysed!’ I murmured, worn out.

I was quickly flipped on my front and dragged out of the surf by the man.

A woman was there too, and her dog was barking.

Shivering, I was ice cold and could barely talk.

My saviours, Liz and Ryan, phoned emergency services and, soon after, an ambulance, two police cars and a fire truck arrived.

Liz looked after Daisy while I was loaded into the ambulance and rushed to Hawke’s Bay Fallen Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital. There I was treated for hypothermia.

Thankfully, doctors confirmed that despite my hellish ordeal, I didn’t have water in my lungs.

Liz called my mum Mary, who then alerted family.

My lovely uncle Ian raced to be by my side.

‘The doctors said you’re lucky to be alive,’ he said, hugging me. ‘Another five minutes out there, and you might’ve been gone.

It turns out, my rescuer Liz had spotted Daisy tied to my rod, then me floating in the water around 8pm while walking her dog.

Thinking I was a dead body, she raced home to tell her neighbour Ryan, an off-duty police officer.

Daisy had saved me! I shuddered to think what could’ve happened if Liz hadn’t seen her…

‘You’ve suffered a spinal injury,’ a doctor told me later that evening.

Duncan relearning to walk
Duncan re-learning how to walk after the accident (Credit: Supplied.)

‘I suddenly lifted my left leg’

They said the fall had put extra pressure on my spine, which had caused paralysis from the neck down.

After a night in ICU, I was airlifted to a bigger hospital in Christchurch the next day.

‘Ian has picked up Daisy, and the kind cop dropped off your gear and the fish you caught,’ my worried mum said over video-call.

That same day, surgeons inserted three titanium rods in my neck to stabilise my spine. Still unable to move, nurses turned me in bed every three hours, to help restore blood flow to other parts of my body.

My wonderful cousin Wes, 47, from Christchurch, visited me every day.

Around two weeks on, in November, I suddenly lifted my left leg, and then moments later, my right leg!

‘Look!’ I called out to the nurses, who raced over with excitement.

Within two months, I had feeling back almost everywhere in my body, and I was able to take my first steps using a walker.

I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to walk again, I thought.

By then, I’d been transferred to the spinal ward and I did intense physio. And after a month, in February 2023, I was walking all by myself.

When Mum came to visit me that month, she was so pleased with my progress.

Duncan mum mary
Duncan with his mum, Mary (Credit: Supplied.)

I even got to go fishing while there, as part of the transitional rehab program, with the help of physio staff.

Waiting for a nibble on the end of my line, I was in my happy place.

Now in the rehab ward back at Hawke’s Bay, I still suffer muscle spasms.

While I re-learn the everyday basics of taking care of myself, I’m counting down the days until I can go home.

I hope to be able to surfcast in the future, and will always bring a buddy and Daisy to be safe!

I also look forward to thanking my heroes, Liz and Ryan, in person.

I’m so happy I made it out of the waves alive.

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