Saving someone from drowning, I found I was totally unprepared

The next recommended step, before any rescue attempt commences, is to think through 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 take even a calming breath before acting.

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Experts advise seeing if there are any strong swimmers in the water already, something not relevant in our case as anyone out of their depth in those conditions was, by definition, in trouble.

There’s also the seemingly obvious point that any weak or non-swimmer should not enter the water. The bystander who plunged in was in this category. After luckily being spat out by the waves to where I could grab him, he immediately admitted he wasn’t a strong swimmer. And he’d had a few drinks.

One thing I did right was to stay within my depth, around waist height. My own quick assessment was that anyone out of their depth in the water was at risk of drowning. So, my main aim was to keep my feet on the ground.

That’s far easier said than done though – 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 realisation that I might have to choose between helping him or another swimmer.

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Rescuers are advised to throw anything that floats into the water — preferably into the rip current — so there’s a chance it’ll be taken out to the swimmer-in-trouble. We tried that with a boogie board. Though the wind and waves sent it spinning onto the beach, I was able to use it to form a short but effective bridge between me the swimmers.

Rip survival education teaches you to not fight against the rip, instead allowing yourself to be carried out to calmer water 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 NSW far north coast where I live. But not at all helpful for St Andrew’s Beach, a cove with skin-ripping and head-breaking rocks everywhere.

In truth, we got lucky. My brother-in-law managed to get a toehold on the rocks and made it back to 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 being another drowning story on the nightly news. I also know that any of the reflexive comments made by anyone watching one of the many news reports of a beach drowning – that anyone who gets themselves into trouble must have done something foolish – don’t understand the complexity and reality of an unexpected summer’s day beach rescue.

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