Life lessons from Surf Lifesaving



We saved a life at Wamberal yesterday.

First thing on the Saturday afternoon patrol Dave and I went out for a swim to feel the currents and the strength of the water moving around. It wasn’t the biggest swell for Wamberal, and the waves were not dumping but rather gently spilling. We swam far out the back and after several minutes recognised that we weren’t moving around much. Beautiful clear water and great temp, and coming back in was a snap as the waves seemed to be naturally pushing toward the shore. Back on the beach we agreed that it was one of the safer days at Wambie. Patrol on! Oh yeah, also, I was Captain today as Stretch was off competing at the State Competition.

A couple hours later we were putting up some signs to warn swimmers about the blue bottles starting to come in on the Nor’Easterly, and we treated a couple of stings. Suddenly, a young bloke, maybe 17 or 18 came running up to the tent waving his arms and pointing up the beach saying there were some swimmers in trouble. He pointed up to the North end of the beach, “The Corner”, about 500m away. Not many people usually swim there, it is generally the best spot for surfing as it is on a little point of rocks that separates Wamberal from Spoon Bay. As it is a point, there is a natural rip there and a swell magnet for bigger waves.

Apparently, there were two swimmers struggling and waving for help. Later, we learned that this young guy and his friends were providing assistance, and one of them had even swum out to help. Brownie and Jeffro jumped in the ute and took off on the sand, while I radioed Surf-Com to advise of the situation. Dave and Jono had just taken the rescue boards out for a paddle, and I waved them in while I got prepared to launch the IRB. I sent Jono back to the tent to stay on the radio and have at least one person patrolling the flagged area, and Dave and I dragged the duck down to the water, got it started, and took off in a break in the shorey.

As we sped north in the swell I could feel my adrenaline flowing, and had to check myself to make sure I was paying attention to the waves and surfers out the back as we got closer to the Corner. I could see Brownie and the ute on the sand giving signals where to go, but it was hard to tell exactly where as the waves were obscuring a clear view. I made a run in through the break towards Brownie, and looped back out again where I saw Jeffro on the yellow rescue board, with a couple other people. I made another run back out again to get the timing right, and then came back in again to attempt a pick up.

As we approached Jeffro, I could see that he was holding onto a body that was limp and lifeless, like an overcooked noodle floating in the water. Jeffro was trying to keep him up, but they were right in the impact zone of the surf, and he couldn’t get him on the board. We came up alongside them, and Dave reached over to try to pull him in the boat. Pulling a lifeless body over the side on the IRB is actually really hard, even for a fit fella like Dave, and he was struggling to get him in. I reached over to grab a leg to help, but I immediately realised that we had taken too long as I looked up on a crashing wave coming down on us.

The IRBs are good in the waves when handled correctly. You can point the bow straight into the biggest wall of whitewater, and you will generally come out fine on the other side. However, sideways they are super vulnerable, and it really doesn’t take much to lift up one pontoon and flip it over. In this moment, we weren’t fully sideways, but not as front on as we should have been and both Dave and I were on the leeward side trying to pull the patient in. As we went up the steep face of the wave and into the wash, I thought to myself “well, this is going to be 50/50 here.” Turns out, luck was not on our side, and suddenly I was in the water with the boat upside down on the back of the wave. Fuck.

At least now, there were three of us in the water with the patient, and together we were able to get him loaded on the rescue board, with Jeffro on the back and navigated out of the impact zone and back to the shore. Dave and I swam after the turtled IRB, rode it back to the sand, flipped it in the shore break and pulled it up. The motor would need to be drained and cleaned out before it would be operational again. Meanwhile, Brownie and Jeffro administered oxygen to the exhausted swimmer while we radioed Surf-Com with an update. Fortunately, the other swimmer had come back to shore on his own. Once we confirmed they were both out of the water and safe, we sped the first guy back to the clubhouse first aid room, and radioed for an ambulance. When they arrived, they asked him if he had swallowed much water, he said he didn’t think so, and then immediately puked all over the floor. Nice. In the end though, he was ok and didn’t go to hospital.

These two guys were in their early 20s, up visiting from Sydney and their first time at Wamberal. They must have looked at the beach and decided to walk up to the more secluded north end. Then they would have fallen into the classic trap of going in the water where the waves looked smaller and the water calmer and was an alluring deep green colour, usually good signs of a rip. They were extremely lucky that those other kids were there to provide the first level of assistance, and that one of them ran about half a km to come get us, those guys were heroes. This is the perfect advertisement for “swim between the flags!”

I feel like this is one of those life defining moments, something that will stick with me forever. I have to admit that I have been in a bit of shock as I processed all the angles of this experience. I know that in the end it was a successful outcome, that there is someone who was able to go home from the beach and be with his friends. I know that through the efforts of both those local kids who first responded, and the action of our team, his life was saved and we kept our beach safe. However I can’t help thinking about the mistakes that I made, and how things could have turned out differently. There are so many lessons and learnings here, but with the benefit of a positive ending, I am able to reflect, learn and grow.

When I think about the Surf Club, I think about all the folks I have gotten to know over the years, and all the laughs and good times we have had while on patrol, at competitions and carnivals, doing water safety for the Nippers, and the banquets and awards night. It’s a lot of smiles and warm welcomes, genuine community and camaraderie. Mostly, we all just love the beach and sun and the water, and coming down for a shift on patrol is really just an excuse to hang out in one of our favourite spots in the summer (when it’s not raining!). So often when we are on patrol, the shift is uneventful and easygoing. But, holy moly, shit can get real, real fast. I have new appreciation for the other side of what we do, and who we are there for. The image of this boy floating lifeless, eyes closed, water splashing over his face will haunt me for a while I’m sure, and the reality of the power of the ocean instills a whole new level of respect for the whole organisation of Surf Lifesaving, what it does and what it stands for. We are all volunteers watching over our beach. There were even several off duty club members who just happened to be down at the beach who instinctively helped because we take care of our beach – Wamberal.

I am so proud to be a part of this group, this community.

Flipping the boat in the middle of a rescue is certainly embarrassing and humbling. I have been thinking a lot about what should have happened differently, and we all discussed and analysed it thoroughly during the debrief. Yes, we have trained for this, but I will tell you what, in the moment of moments, things are different. An inactive body in the water is so different to a “patient” when training, and the real adrenaline of real life / death consequences adds serious colour to the picture. There is nothing like a sharp edge experience to hone your skills even further, and learning from mistakes is the best kind of learning. This is a significant tally in my experience column and I actually feel more confident now to get back out there and protect the beach. I understand the importance of patience even in moments that require fast action, and keeping a cool head with adrenaline in the veins is critical.

I have always prided myself on my ability to think fast, trust my judgement and instincts, and make the right call when it mattered. All of my high speed, high risk adrenaline pursuits have honed my skill at relying on my capabilities and knowing my limits. In this case, under real pressure, my instincts failed me, and I have been struggling to accept that. No one likes to be exposed, especially when the stakes are high, and as I strive for accomplishment and achievement in other areas of my life, it is hard to admit vulnerability and fallibility. One of the questions I always ask when interviewing someone for a role is: “have you ever been part of a high performing team?” If I was asked this question now, I would point to Patrol 6, who all stepped up to pull together and get the job done. I am now recognising this as a benchmark in my skills, and a motivator to train harder, learn more, develop further skill, become a more proficient waterman, and to be a better part of the performance of the team. I’m going to buy a surfboard this winter.

In the end, we saved his life, even if it was clumsy. I have gained not only experience points of surf lifesaving, but also developed a deeper level of humility and respect. Also, I now fully know the procedure for draining out the motor and get it running again. And I have already been told that I will be a serious contender for this year’s IRB turtle award!

Edit: I didn’t actually get the turtle award, instead I was given the more prestigious “Patrol Person of the Year.” Thanks to everyone at Wamberal Surf Lifesaving Club, such an honour!