A speedy rescue that probably saved the life of a mother and son and their two dogs has won the Orewa lifeguards who saved them the national BP Rescue of the Month for March, which was announced today.
Lifeguards were on duty patrolling at Orewa Surf Life Saving Club just after noon on Sunday March 24, when a lifeguard spotted someone running toward them from the direction of the Orewa Estuary – a spot with swift currents about half a kilometre south.
Because of their knowledge of the dangers at the estuary, the team started a rescue response before the runner had even reached them, launching the IRB with two lifeguards.
The IRB was launched a 111 police report also came in, saying a man and his dog were being dragged out to sea in a rip tide at the estuary.
Three off-duty lifeguards who had been washing gear down at the club after helping at a community event also responded. Two drove toward the estuary on an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) packed with first aid gear, and the third added his support to the lifeguards still patrolling between the flags.
IRB driver and Orewa Surf Life Saving Club chairman Faron Turner says as the IRB reached the estuary, several people on the banks pointed out the man and his dog in the water, about 300 metres out in the ocean.
The lifeguards could see the man in his 20s holding an elderly labrador up. He had blood on his hands from being gashed on rocks in the estuary, and was balancing on a rock ledge on the sea bed, keeping his head above water.
Turner guided the boat toward the man in the water, but saw him motioning out to sea, where they caught sight of a woman and a staffie cross, bobbing in and out of sight.
“Her head was under the water. We could see her and the dog bobbing under the waves, and the dog was panicking and had his paws on her shoulder and was pushing her underwater,” Turner says.
“That made her the greatest priority, it was urgent to get to her. We had to reach her in the next 30 seconds to save her life from drowning.”
Turner swung the boat into the waves, and quickly covered the 100 metres to her. In the front of the boat Conan Willis was poised and ready to reach for her.
“But the young dog was a bit of a challenge, it was growling, and quite upset, and Conan called back to me, ‘we’ve got to get the dog first, he’s pushing her under’.”
So working as a team, Willis swung the dog on board while Turner held the boat steady and pulled the woman’s arms up to the ropes on the side of the boat to keep her head above water, before Willis swung around to pull her up in the next motion.
The woman’s face was covered in blood from the dog’s frantic clawing, and she was a bit stunned, Turner says.
“Her initial response was ‘thank god you guys were here, I thought I was gone’.”
Quickly they fired the boat back to her son, and pulled him and his dog into the IRB too.
Then they headed in to the ATV waiting close-by on the shore, where the team did a thorough first aid assessment, patched up their scratches, and make sure they were okay, before taking them back to their car on the other side of the estuary.
The entire rescue took four minutes, from the 111 call to the point the mother and son were back on the beach, Turner says.
“Speed makes all the difference when someone is in trouble in the water. The urgency in our response and getting the IRB out onto the water can be the difference in them surviving, so we practice for quick responses.”
The people on the shore who raised the alarm quickly, and pointed them towards the man in the water also made a big difference, he says.
“If you see someone in trouble in the water, the best thing you can do is to call 111, ask for police, and tell them it’s a water rescue.
“Then stay there to point in the direction you last saw them – our search time is cut down and we can get right into the action and get to them quicker.”
Turner says the rescue was fast and effective because the entire team worked smoothly together, communicating well, allocating resources wisely to the changing situation, and carrying out the kind of skilled rescue that can only work seamlessly thanks to hours of preparation, training, and thorough knowledge of good lifeguarding techniques.
The award was made to: Samantha Gunther, who took the emergency call, scrambled the team, and relayed communications on the radio; Faron Turner and Conan Willis, who crewed the IRB; Martin Burgess, who stayed on duty at the club patrolling between the flags; Stu Handford, who was off-duty, but joined the patrol with Burgess; and Pip Cunninghame and Curtis King, who were also off-duty but drove the ATV to the estuary to provide first aid.
The rescued pair told lifeguards one of their dogs had swum into the estuary and could not fight back against the current, so first the mother tried to rescue it, then the son. And the second, younger dog followed them out into the water.
Turner says over the years a number of rescues have been carried out at the estuary, which is a dangerous spot.
The club has applied for lifesaving flotation rings to be permanently mounted at the estuary, so anyone can grab them if someone is in trouble in the water.
“We’ve got a lot of signage there, it’s a rip tide - the outgoing flow of water on a tidal movement is massive, and people underestimate it,” Turner says.
BP Rescue of the Month is awarded to Surf Life Saving NZ lifeguards who demonstrate excellence during a rescue.
BP NZ Managing Director Debi Boffa says the skills the team demonstrated during the rescue were outstanding.
“This rescue is yet another example of the importance of IRBs to surf clubs all over the country, and testament to the skills and tenacity of the surf lifeguards who keep us safe at the beach.
“We’re incredibly proud to have supported Surf Life Saving for 51 years, and to have the opportunity to recognise the outstanding skills shown in this rescue.”