A week ago whilst lying on a sunbed at Coral Beach in Pankgor, Malaysia, I watched a young man drown at sea.

That sentence sounds callous. I had spectated a young man’s death. But that’s what happened.

Putting the incident in context, Coral Beach is a small beach, shaped in a semi-circle bay, with an island, Coral Island, about 3/4 mile away from shore.

For about 4 weeks of the year, and last week was one of those weeks, Coral Island is reachable on foot from the beach at low tide.  Low tide was about 10.00 am. Many beachgoers walked to and from the island that morning.

By 2.00 pm the tide was coming in and coming in fast. Those leaving the island had no choice but to swim to shore. For strong swimmers, the swim is not difficult and can be done in under half an hour.

At 2.00 pm I saw three swimmers starting the swim back from the island. Their stroke was front crawl. But the type of front crawl where the head does not go under the water and is not still, and the whirling arms create a lot of splashes. The stroke was less front crawl, more advanced doggy paddle.

At 2.10 pm the swimmer who had made the most progress on the swim back to shore started shouting “help.” I looked up. All three swimmers were in the water, still moving with their hybrid, doggy crawl, stroke. I thought I must have misheard.

I went back to my book, thinking nothing was amiss.

A minute or two later more cries of help rang out. All three swimmers were in the water, their heads still visible, but their bodies not moving.

A boat on the beach was dragged into the sea. Its outboard motor pulled into life. The first swimmer was picked up and dragged into the boat, as was the second. The boat went towards the third swimmer.

My eyes trained on the third swimmer. His head was above water, waiting to be picked up. Suddenly that head disappeared below the water. Seconds passed. I scanned the sea expecting the head to pop back up in a different place, in much the same way as a cork. I waited. The rescue boat stopped at the spot the head was last seen. The men on board jumped in to search the water.

No joy. More boats put to sea. A passing kayak joined in. All searching for the missing swimmer. Minutes passed by as if through an egg timer. Each piece of sand reducing the chance of a happy outcome.

The fire brigade turned up with their red “bomba” boat, as did their divers. Minutes turned to hours.  The search was now for a body.

The surviving two swimmers waited on shore, sat on the sand, their heads between their legs, mute from shock.

I spoke to the owner of the beach bar. He said that the body will be taken out to sea by the currents. He said that within 22 to 24 hours the sea will return the body to the same spot from which it disappeared.

The fire brigade expected this outcome. They placed a buoy at the place the head was last seen.

A crowd of people waited on the beach, many through the night. They were chanting in Malay, sotto voce, towards the sea, “Return the body.”

The following day, just before noon, the search resumed. At 12.10 pm, the occupants of one boat started shouting. That boat was adjacent to the buoy left by the fire brigade. Sure enough the sea, like a boomerang, had delivered up the body to the same spot where the head had last been seen.

The fire brigade’s boat left shore, equipped with a stretcher and body bag.

Within 5 minutes the corpse returned to land, the body bagged.

Some westerners could not resist the temptation to capture the moment on their camera phone, getting close to the body bag, their camera aloft, oblivious to the emotional carnage around them.

A photo was unnecessary and intrusive, what had been witnessed was seared indelibly on my mind, like a hot brand on soft skin.

I kept a respectful distance, taking the moment in, respecting the waiting relatives who were dabbing their eyes with towels removing their tears of grief, and at the same time stifling the anguished howls of loss.

The book I was reading on the beach was JG Farrell’s, The Siege of Krishnapur. JG Farrell’s life was cut short in an almost identical way, whilst his career was at a peak. The author’s death re-inforced the message of what I had witnessed.

Respect the sea, it shows no mercy, takes no prisoners, its currents will take you if you show any vulnerability. Respect the strength of nature. Life is fragile. It can be cut short in a blink of an eye. Yes, live it to the full.  But accept and recognise that the sea is timeless. Our time is limited, use that time well but use it carefully, stack the odds in your favour in any situation where you are up against the sea.