The next recommended step before embarking on a rescue attempt is to think about the options. We didn’t do this and I understand why most people don’t. When someone is drowning right in front of you, it’s hard to even take a deep breath before you act.
Experts advise to see if there are already strong swimmers in the water, something that is irrelevant in our case, since anyone who went too deep under those circumstances was by definition in trouble.
There is also the seemingly obvious point that any weak or non-swimmer should not enter the water. The bystander who collapsed belonged to this category. After happily spat out through the waves to where I could grab him, he immediately admitted that he wasn’t a strong swimmer. And he had been drinking.
One thing I did well was stay within my depth, around waist level. My own quick assessment was that anyone not deep in the water was at risk of drowning. So my main goal was to keep both feet on the ground.
However, that’s much easier said than done – I was constantly at risk of being pulled out, something that happened to my brother-in-law in a flash. Once he was in trouble, I had the sickening realization that I might have to choose between helping him or another swimmer.
Rescuers are advised to throw anything that floats in the water – preferably in the rip current – so there is a chance it will be carried to the troubled swimmer. We tried that with a boogie board. Although the wind and waves made it spin on the beach, I was able to use it to form a short but effective bridge between me and the swimmers.
Rip survival education teaches you not to fight the rip, but let yourself be carried to calmer waters before finding another way in, or swim parallel to the beach to escape the rip.
That advice is great for the endless sandy beaches along the far north coast of NSW where I live. But not at all handy for St Andrew’s Beach, a cove with ripping and dizzying rocks everywhere.
In reality we got lucky. My brother-in-law managed to gain a foothold on the rocks and reached the shore. The weaker of the two swimmers, a teenager, was pushed in the right direction by his father and managed to grab the boogie board I was holding. The father took another 5-10 minutes and was washed over the rocks before he too could be helped safely onto the sand, where he immediately collapsed.
I know how close this experience came to another drowning story on the nightly news. I also know that the reflexive remarks of anyone watching one of the many news reports about a beach drowning – that anyone getting themselves into trouble must have done something stupid – fail to understand the complexities and realities of an unexpected summer day. beach rescue.
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