DAVID RANDALL unearths one-in-a-million stories of coincidence that just go to show how strange events are part of everyday life.

A holidaying family from Coventry was sailing off the Australian coast when a humpback whale jumped out of the water and landed on their yacht, much to the distress of mast, sails and sailors.

Of all the oceans in all the world, the whale had to fall into theirs. What are the chances of that happening?

There are 350 million square kilometres of ocean and the boat was only 9m long. Randomly toss a humpback whale in the air and the odds of it hitting any particular 9m of sea are about one in far-too-many-to-get-your-head-round. Wow.


Well, yes, as those of us who spend our lives monitoring the planet's more ludicrous events would say, up to a point.

For we know the really freaky thing would be the world going very long without remarkable happenings.

As Paul Sieveking, who has spent nearly 30 years with the Fortean Times, sifting and adding to its three-million-item archive of the strange, says: "Phenomena occur much more often than people imagine."

And so, the world being in a constant state of Just Fancy That, we've developed a sort of Richter Scale of the Remarkable. It goes something like this:

Routine phenomena

Barely a day goes by without a letter delivered decades late (112 years, Australia to England is the record), a cat trapped under floors for weeks on end (always with the added detail that it survived by lapping condensation), a road accident between trucks carrying fortuitous loads (one with bacon, say, colliding with another bearing eggs), pets navigating vast distances to return home (normally cats, but the record is held by a collie who managed, by stowing away on a boat, the 4800km from Calcutta to Inverkeithing, Scotland), and various permutations of golfers holing in one (the odds on any ace are 27,000 to one).

The ring recovered

Lost rings found and returned by strangers are the small change of the phenomena world. After all, they're made of substances that endure, and are often inscribed.

In Hawaii, diver Ken DaVico expects to find about 15 weddings rings a year in the sea, many of whose owners can be traced. Even if fish get there first all may not be lost: there are cases of rings being retrieved many years later from fish and shellfish.

Far less common are losers making the find, as when Karen Goode went to a Pembrokeshire beach and found a ring she had lost when bathing 10 years before.


Lightning strikes thrice

Instances of people (invariably park rangers or similar) being struck more than five times are almost commonplace. But few women have been unluckier than Martha Martika, a Bulgarian who has been widowed not once, not twice, but three times by lightning strikes.

Even this pales compared with the loss suffered by the Bena Tshadi football club in the Congo. On 25 October 1998, all 11 players were killed by lightning during a match. The opposition was untouched.

The freaky fall

Babies falling 17 floors and landing on their nappies are not the only ones to survive big drops.

Last month a woman slipped off Beachy Head, on Britain's south coast, and was caught on a narrow ledge tens of metres from the ground.

Snow often plays a part, cushioning the fall - of a Japanese climber who tumbled 1200m off Mt Rishiri, for instance - and giving many owners of failed parachutes a soft landing.

But for a true miracle, try the Swiss pensioner who was blown by the wind from his 17th-floor balcony, only for another gust to propel him safely on to a lower balcony.

The spooky coincidence

Many are not that unusual - like two people at a party sharing a name, or a birthday, or even the famous coincidences between the deaths of US Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. People's amazement at them is due largely to ignorance of the laws of probability.

And yet ... Sir Anthony Hopkins got on the tube after a fruitless search for George Feifer's novel The Girl from Petrovka. He looked down, and there on the next seat was a copy of the book. It was the author's own, stolen two years before.

Two more classics: in 2001 Laura Buxton released a balloon in Staffordshire, Britain. It was found 225km away - by a girl called Laura Buxton.

Neville Ebin died in Bermuda when a taxi knocked him off his moped. A year later his brother was killed on the same moped in the same street by the same taxi driven by the same man and carrying the same passenger.

And, best of all, in Massachusetts in 1965 Roger Lausier, 4, was saved from drowning by a woman called Alice Blaise. Nine years later Roger saw a man drowning on the same beach, dived in and saved him. He was Alice Blaise's husband.

The ironic exit

Courtesy of the not-so-Grim Reaper comes the following: South African Danie du Toit gave a lecture warning that death could occur at any time. He sat down, popped in a peppermint and promptly choked to death.

In 1998 Jose Ricart was walking around Burgos, Spain, with a banner that read "The End of the World is Nigh". Sure enough, a truck ran him over.

And in 1988 Anderson Godwin, a murderer reprieved from the electric chair, was sitting on a steel commode and bit through a wire while trying to fix his TV headphones, turning his metal toilet into a version of Old Sparky. What are the odds against that?

Well, rather less than you might think, even for something so utterly unusual.

Nine years later exactly the same thing happened to Laurance Baker, a Pittsburgh prisoner also spared the electric chair.

Long-lost Uncle Billy

Long-lost relatives, like rings, have a habit of turning up in the strangest ways.

Sisters Barbara Small and Doreen Frost, adopted separately in 1943, bumped into each other in a butcher's shop after an interval of 52 years.

John Leadbitter of Southampton had been trying for decades to trace his brother, whom he had not seen for 40 years, when he met a woman who said, "You look like my husband". The rest you can guess.

One in a billion? One in a schmillion. It happens every day.