When Matthew Bryce paddled out into the cold surf off the west coast of Scotland, he was clad in a thick, neoprene wetsuit — gear that would stand him in good stead for a solid surf session Sunday. But at less than an inch thick, that material may not have seemed the most important bit of equipment the 22-year-old surfer brought with him.
As it turns out, that wetsuit helped save his life.
Bryce's Sunday-morning surf spiraled into a life-threatening ordeal that lasted a day and a half in cold, choppy surf. By midday Monday, local coast guard teams had learned of his disappearance, and it was only after an hours-long search — involving a helicopter and roughly a half-dozen local coast guard teams — that Bryce was finally spotted and plucked from the sea.
"Hope was fading of finding the surfer safe and well after such a long period in the water and with nightfall approaching we were gravely concerned," Dawn Petrie of the Belfast Coastguard Operations Centre said in a statement, "but at 7.30pm [Monday], the crew on the Coastguard rescue helicopter were delighted when they located the man still with his surf board and 13 miles off the coast."
Rescue workers say they found Bryce when the surfer, who had miraculously remained conscious, slipped into the water and began waving the tip of his white board in the air. It was that movement and contrast of colors that caught the helicopter crew's eyes — but at first they feared it was simply debris.
"We went around, dropped down the height a bit, came in and then that moment, when you go, 'Oh! it is actually a surfboard and there is actually someone on it waving,' " Capt. Andy Pilliner, who had been piloting the helicopter, told NBC News. "It's just a great feeling, it's just what you're hoping for, but daren't."
The team recorded the moment of the rescue as it happened. You can watch that footage from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at the top of this page.
Even better news awaited when they found that after about 32 hours alone in the Irish Sea, Bryce was suffering from hypothermia but appeared no worse. Now hospitalized in stable condition, he celebrated his rescuers in a brief statement.
"I am so grateful that I am now receiving treatment in hospital. I can't thank those enough who rescued and cared for me — they are all heroes," Bryce said. "For now, I am not facilitating any interviews as I am exhausted. Please respect the privacy of myself and my family at this time as I recover."
"The past 48 hours have been an absolute rollercoaster of emotions for our family and we are so grateful that Matthew has been found safe and well," his father, John, told The Guardian. Bryce's family had been the first to report him missing.
John Bryce added:
"To get that call from the police last night to say that he was alive was unbelievable. It was better than a lottery win — you just can't describe it. Matthew means the world to us; he is such a strong character both mentally and physically, and we are looking forward to being reunited with him."
What's one other thing Bryce owes a debt of thanks? Why, that wetsuit, Petrie says. "He was kitted out with all the right clothing including a thick neoprene suit and this must have helped him to survive for so long at sea."