Jacob Cockle: in Life & in Death.
A life lived in the sea was a favourite past-time of one Jacob Cockle. Whilst learning to walk at a tender young age he also began to learn to swim and his natural element became water. Any opportunity to film surfing was the best of all options because he loved it so much – photographing these exciting scenes became a niche he was beginning to carve out for his career path. But Jacob also lived on the edge.
His beloved sister died when Jacob was only in his teens. He became ever more risky as he identified with being something of a daredevil.
Then came the moment when he would photograph his one last shot as he chose to stay in the water for too long – a moment which he thought at the time would be the pinnacle of achieving his dreams. He was 28 years old. Jacob Cockle died in the sea.
Gwynver beach lies at the bottom of a winding country lane for which Cornwall is notorious for, and it’s located about eight miles from Penzance. The tourist attractions of Land’s End or the fishing village of Sennen are the popular destinations for people and due to their appeal many will drive past Gwynver beach without even realising it’s there. But there is great reward for those who find two surfboards in the shape of a cross upon a chapel which lies opposite the turn that leads to the beach.
Gwynver could easily pass for paradise on a fine day with the deep blue Atlantic ocean caressing the blindingly bright sandy stretches of the beach. As if a pair of protective wings a curved cliff envelops the beach. Along the sea trawlers chug along. The grainy white of surfboards contrasted with the jet black shiny wetsuits of the surfers seem to be undeterred by a smooth swell as the surfers dot along the waves. Parties with late-night barbecues were held in his favourite place to surf. Gwynver became Jacob’s spiritual home.
The day after his death lanterns were released and fires were lit on the beach at night as he friends gathered in tribute. It would be here that his ashes were to be scattered as had those of his sister Grace.
Risk, excitement, and exhilaration were all hallmarks of Jacob’s existence. Jacob attacked life full throttle, whether it was exploring crystal-filled caves, surfing impossible waves, or dancing at all-night raves. “He had these crazy eyes that looked like the sea, his hair was always unkempt, he always looked happy,” says his friend Barnaby Courtney. “He made you believe magic existed.”
The beaches surrounding the town of Penzance was where Jacob felt truly at home even though he had traveled the world his affinity lay where he grew up as a child.
His childhood was quintessentially Cornish with days spent bathing at the beach or running around the countryside. As murky mists smothered the land the kids would be bundled up in their Quiksilver coats yet all the while tanned pink from days in the sun. “Jacob loved the water,” his mother Carolyn says. “Once he was in you could never get him out.” School was a struggle as Jacob was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was 10 years old. With their surfboards beneath their arms, he and his friends would skip school lessons to hitchhike to the beach.
A star pupil, his sister Grace was the polar opposite of Jacob. Excelling in cross country, hockey, and championing her netball side, Grace was a hard-worker and consistently scored top marks for her school grades. “Grace was great,” says Paul Kellas, Jacob’s form tutor at Cape Cornwall Comprehensive and now the school’s assistant head teacher. He smiles at his memories of her but the smile fades. “What happened to her, well, it was heartbreaking. What more does that poor family have to go through?”
Jacob was the youngest of four children, the baby brother to Grace, Laura and Joe. But he was closest to Grace, three years his senior. Grace would speak for Jacob in a secret language that the pair of them devised as toddlers. In fact people thought Jacob had a problem. “They were genuinely worried that he didn’t know how to talk,” says his older sister Laura. “But I said of course he knows how to talk, it’s just he doesn’t need to, Grace does it for him.”
His closeness to Grace remained as Jacob grew older. “She was really bright but also really driven and determined; if she wanted to achieve something she did,” says her best friend Dabriella Quayle. “She was the sort of girl your parents talked about, ‘why can’t you be more like Grace’?” Dabriella’s twin sister Aprilla nods in agreement. “She was very headstrong, but she was also fun. She was older than her years, she had the sense of someone in their 30s or 40s.” The twins pause. “Looking back now it was eerie,” says Aprilla. “Almost as if Grace knew she had limited time so had to excel and do everything.”
Whilst in France working at children’s camps for her gap year in 2001, Grace began experiencing headaches. She returned home in August of that year and by September she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. With her family camped out by her side in Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, Grace underwent radiotherapy. Jacob stayed at home however. “Because he was younger we did not tell Jacob a lot of what was happening,” says his mother. “We thought through it all she was going to survive.”
An operation in Belgium was the only hope for Grace as her cancer again returned after only six months. Grace went to Belgium, the operation was only a partial success but the tumour returned. This time it was terminal and Grace died on 18 December 2002 when she was 19. After her death, Grace’s ashes were stored in the airing cupboard, her “favourite place in the house”. She had asked for them to be kept until another family member died. What surprised her friend Dabriella was that she had been afraid of being scattered alone. “I thought it was a very strange request for her,” she says. “She had always been such an independent person, it was just very un-Grace.”
Eleven years later, following the death of her grandmother, arrangements were finally being made to scatter their ashes together. Then, a day before the planned ritual, Grace’s younger brother died. She was no longer alone.
On the Edge.
The impact on Jacob was devastating as Grace’s death came when he was only 17. It changed his view of life. He believed her energy transferred into him. His girlfriend Rachel says that this inspired him to “throw everything to the wind and give it a try. He thought, as a young beautiful woman she did not do anything in life to deserve that, there was no karma to it, it was just cruel. He felt like he needed to live his life for her as well as for himself. Maybe that’s why he lived his life twice as hard.”
An obsession with photography became an outlet for Jacob’s hyperactive energy. A teenage Jacob laid bare his ambition on a board in his bedroom. “I am becoming a world famous photographer and filmer,” he had written. “I will concentrate my mind on this desire for 10 minutes daily for the purpose of determining just how I shall transform it into reality. I will permit nothing to intervene with my doing so.”
His other obsession being his compulsion for taking risks went hand in hand with his new-found passion for photography. To get the best shots Jacob was prepared to do almost anything and he would be armed with a camera during each daredevil escapade. Jacob pushed himself to greater extremes. Wanting to explore the depths of the sea, Jacob had taught himself to hold his breath for long periods. He would also surf over rocks or towards cliffs. Part of the draw was the danger of it all. “He and his friends dared to surf where others did not,” says Gary Richards, a friend who had known Jacob since babysitting him. “They wanted to catch the bigger waves and do bigger tricks.” After he and his friends surfed a storm in Newlyn in 2008, numerous national newspapers splashed with this photograph showing Jacob moments before he was struck by a huge wave.
Three-storey buildings like Abbey Warehouse in Penzance harbour, as well as other tall buildings with water below, would set the stage from which Jacob would perform regular stunts by hurling himself off. He received a police caution after leaping from a railway bridge in Hayle.
On one occasion, almost being crushed by a ship, Jacob had to be rescued from the Penzance waters as he jumped into the harbour outside the Bosun’s Locker nightclub. Zain Ishmael was one of those who came to his aid, forming a four-man human chain with his friends to pull a jubilant Jacob to safety. Everyone cheered, Jacob laughed and then just ran off into the night. “What a crazy cat,” Zain recalled.
Both The Sunday Times newspaper and National Geographic magazine had lauded Jacob with awards by the time he reached his early 20s. Always on the lookout for that much-coveted cover shoot, Jacob found himself contributing to surfer magazines on a regular basis. The sea was the most common feature of his pictures. The London Underground would even come to feature his images on posters after he won a competition in which he portrayed a fishing boat returning to port in a large swell. The adventure of a lifetime would come beckoning when Jacob won a £28,000 expedition to Antarctica just weeks before his death. The Guardian newspaper also ran a contest for travel photography and the winning image was Jacob’s shot of his friend Seb surfing near a supertanker in Sumatra. Judges said the picture would “stand the test of time.” According to Jacob the shoot had been “extremely dangerous,” which satisfied his passions and epitomised his ethos as well as furnishing him with a stunning photograph. If unfortunate to fall below there would be twists of metal waiting to skewer the surfer as the hull of the ship was bouncing off the waves in a wild and unpredictable way. In August that year, the monthly prize for the photography competition featured Jacob’s entry as its winner. “His career was photography but that encompassed so much of what he found important in life,” says his girlfriend Rachel. “Everything he did was in symbiosis with the way he lived his life. It was all kind of one big experiment.”
Photography gadgets ate up all of Jacob’s new-found earnings. He would give away prizes such as new televisions to his friends. Exhibition spaces, stays in fancy hotels, and expeditions were some of the lucrative offers Jacob got in return for his pictures. One contest saw him win a pair of custom design Nike trainers which he called the Yak 2000, Yak being one of the various nicknames he was known by. Capturing all the images on camera was part of the experience of seeking the thrill of new experiences.
One of these was close to his home. Visual art, coupled with excitement made the perfect combination for his moment. It was the whirlpool.
Merely a few times a year would the vortex in Hayle harbour appear. To stop the harbour silting up the Victorians engineered a whirlpool creating a historical quirk. Water would be stored in a pool at high tide and, once the tide had retreated, released back into the harbour to wash away the sand. Beneath the quay was a tunnel through which the pool of water would run into. But sometimes the tide would come back in faster than the water could pass through the tunnel. Thus the whirlpool was created.
Enticing him in was Jacob’s adventurous spirit and the appeal of the swift-swirling vortex. His plan was to film the action as he swam in the whirlpool despite warning signs around the sluice. Jacob made hundreds of pounds as the videos were watched millions of times on YouTube. The videos are beautiful and hypnotic but also terrifying.
The whirlpool returned on 28 May 2013. A friend came running towards the house of artist David Raine, who had collaborated with Jacob in the past, and was sat in his living room. With his camera in his hand and already in his wetsuit Jacob was excited at the prospect of filming the whirlpool once again. David agreed to film him as he swam around the whirlpool. By the time he reached the harbour, Jacob was already in the water. He was wearing a rubber horse’s head, a prop he thought would make the video more eye-catching on YouTube.
Jacob wanted to make the most of it whilst the whirlpool was still there despite having had already shot a lot of footage of it in the past. As a whooping Jacob swirled around the whirlpool’s edge, David filmed from the quay. “It looks a powerful one,” David called to Jacob. “Ah yeah, earlier on it was really scary,” Jacob had shouted back. “It’s fine now because it’s so deep but when I first got in I was a bit scared to be honest. It’s safe as now, though.” Letting the whirlpool carry him around again it tugged Jacob down as it caught him. “Woah woah,” he cackled as he escaped the drag. “That was pretty scary.” He asked David to pass him a GoPro camera attached to a short pole. Jacob wanted to get one last shot below the surface.
Jacob dived down as David watched on but Jacob did not reappear. Calling his friend’s name, David began to worry. David ran across to the other end of the quay where the tunnel of the whirlpool funneled into flowed into a pool. He asked a fisherman if he had seen anyone come through, but he hadn’t. There was no sign of Jacob as water was churning through the tunnel below. David ran back and forth. Then he saw him. The tunnel had spat Jacob out and he was in the pool lying face down whilst floating in the water. David waded out to him but he knew it was too late.
The Next Realm.
The police arrived at the home of Jacob’s mother, Carolyn, that night whilst she was in bed and she was taken to Treliske Hospital in Truro to identify her son. She was so shocked she could not even cry.
Her house was full of people by the time she returned home and it would remain that way for days as a stream of mourners would pass through.
Jacob’s funeral was a major event. The church could not accommodate all of the people who wished to attend. His coffin was painted with a wave motif and his body was dressed in his hole-riddled pants, shorts and favourite hat. Afterwards, about 40 of his friends did what they thought Jacob would have wanted them to; they went skinny dipping in Penzance’s open-air, sea-filled pool The Jubilee.
Carolyn felt she had to move out of Penzance after Jacob’s death: “I would go to the supermarket and I would have people I did not even know coming up to me crying and hugging me,” she says. “We had to get away so we moved here.” Home is now an old farmhouse near Sennen, on the other side of a hill from Land’s End airport.
Jacob’s ashes were scattered with his sister Grace’s over the fields of Gwynver and Carolyn has transformed part of her garden into a shrine. At the top sits a statue of the Buddha. Buried beneath are the sunflowers from Grace’s bedroom window and the dreadlocks which adorned Jacob’s head. His surfboard stands in the front garden, next to the A30, which gets honked at by surfers who drive past.
Inside, almost every wall is covered by Jacob’s photographs or paintings. “He won every award going,” Carolyn says proudly. But his absence is still being felt, she adds. “There is never a day that I don’t think about it.” The sluicing system in Hayle harbour was altered a year after Jacob’s death so that the whirlpool that fascinated and ultimately killed Jacob would be gone forever. Most agree if Jacob had survived the whirlpool it would not have changed his approach to life, though. “I do not think he was scared of death,” says Rachel. “If he was going to go any way it was going to be in some extreme blaze of glory like that. Like he was vortexed into the next realm.” His friend, Barnaby Courtney, agrees. “When I heard how he died I felt full of grief but it felt like if he had to go, that was the just way,” he says. “I mean really, what a ridiculous, almost hilarious, way to pass on. He’d have thought so. Going down a whirlpool? It’s like something out of a fairy tale.”