27 May 2019
For Surf Lifesaving Northern Region
Lifesaving heads say a spate of emergency rescues off northern region beaches over the weekend is a timely reminder of the need for lifesavers to be able to respond year-round and the critical nature of their service.
The patrolled season may be over and winter weeks away but there was no let up for lifeguards on Auckland’s west coast this weekend. Local lifeguards in the Auckland area were called out on four separate occasions, working with emergency services to save the lives of nine people on Auckland’s dangerous west coast.
SLSNR Operations Manager Alan Gibson says the most serious rescue occurred after dusk on Saturday night when guards from the Kariaotahi and Sunset Beach surf clubs were called out to search for three people in the water when their boat capsized on the Waikato River bar near Sunset Beach. Gibson says the emergency call-out squads, which operate throughout the patrol off-season, are a critical part of Surf Life Saving’s drowning prevention strategy. “Although this weekend’s workload is significant, we’re expecting the demand for this off-season service to grow in future years.”
Kariaotahi President Mike Lawrence says the three were in the water for almost two hours in very rough conditions with around a two-metre swell that was building, before they were located by the Police Eagle helicopter’s infrared search equipment. The Westpac rescue helicopter, also on the scene, then guided an IRB with two senior operators onboard to the three in the water illuminating the scene with a searchlight while a surf ute and Police ute on the beach also trained their headlights on the water.
At that stage says Lawrence the trio were just beyond the breakers and it took just four minutes for the IRB to retrieve them. “They were fortunate to be picked up before they drifted into the breakers – they would have been hammered in the surf.” Lawrence says two of the three people rescued were barely conscious – an adult female who also suffered a cardiac arrest on the beach and a young boy, both of whom were airlifted to Auckland Hospital. The third, an adult male, was conscious and alert but was taken by St John Ambulance to hospital as well. All three were wearing lifejackets.
Twelve lifeguards from Kariaotahi assisted with the call-out including shore searches and logistical support, while a number of guards from Sunset Beach were also available should a more extensive search have been required.
Lawrence says the night-time use of IRBs is unusual – “it’s quite risky for crews to operate in the dark even though we have trained for it and have the necessary safety equipment. The search scene in this case was relatively close to shore, we had all the safety equipment we needed and carried out a careful risk assessment first. For all of that, though, I’d say this was possibly the most difficult rescue the two guards might encounter in their careers.”
Lawrence says another four people were rescued around 12.30pm on Sunday, also following a boat capsize on the Waikato bar, with Kariaotahi lifeguards being called out alongside Coastguard to rescue them. The four and their boat fortunately drifted onto the northern shoreline of the river bar where they were picked up by guards in the club ute.
Earlier in the day off-duty guards at Piha were called out to rescue a surfer from rocks at the south end of the beach, while their counterparts at Bethells Beach and Muriwai Beach were alerted to a swimmer in trouble off Muriwai at 4.20pm. A tube rescue was performed by lifeguards who returned the swimmer to shore.
Gibson says the series of rescues highlights the ever-present risks for anyone involved in recreational activities at the beach regardless of the time of year. “Winter may be just a week away but our guards have to be ready to jump into action at any time – just as if it’s the height of summer. And the days being shorter there’s the real chance we’ll be tasked with finding people in the water in the dark – as in this case. That is incredibly difficult and hazardous work – particularly if there is a messy swell running.”
Surf Life Saving Northern Region Chief Executive Matt Williams praised the work of the volunteer lifeguards over the weekend. “Heroic isn’t a word often used in our sector, but for the work carried out this weekend it certainly fits the bill – a big thank you to those lifeguards.” Williams says without the integrated search and rescue and emergency coordination response from Police, Coastguard, the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust and his organisation “the city would be dealing with multiple tragedies this morning. This serves to remind the public that safety in and around the water must always be at the fore, but also how critical organisations such as Surf Life Saving are – they need to remain well supported.”
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