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A mass rescue that was described as incredible and heroic, has won lifesavers James and Kirsty McLennan a Rescue of the Month Award for saving the lives of nine people who were caught in the notorious Bronte Beach rip and swept hundreds of metres out to sea.​

The award-winning rescue occurred at 7.45pm in the evening on Saturday 1 February. James McLennan, who is Club Captain at Bronte Surf Club, and his wife Kirsty were relaxing at their home at Bronte Beach. The sun was going down and light was fading fast.

James noticed a large group of people caught in the notorious Bronte Beach rip. They were in considerable distress and were being swept quickly out to sea. Thinking quickly, he ran to Bronte Surf Club to grab a rescue board.

“As I ran down, I could hear a lot of screaming and yelling coming from the beach. I could see at least six people in trouble, so I had to get a board and get straight into the water. I simply didn’t have time to call 000. So, as I was running to the beach, I sent a message to our Board and Surf Skills Group on ‘WhatsApp’ requesting assistance,” James said.

James grabbed a rescue board from the Bronte Surf Club but before diving into the water, asked two bystanders to call 000 and request Ambulance assistance. He paddled out through the rip to rescue the swimmers who were now more than 250 metres from the beach. Being a surf sports athlete and strong board paddler, he reached the group of struggling swimmers within minutes.

“The conditions were pretty nasty. It was choppy and there was a lot of moving water around. There was a strong north-east wind blowing which made paddling out more difficult,” James said.

James’ wife Kirsty, who had followed James to the beach, also grabbed a rescue board from the club and dived into the rip. So did several other off-duty surf lifesavers and two off-duty Waverly Council lifeguards who had seen James’ request for assistance via the ‘WhatsApp’ message. They arrived a short time later to assist.

On call Duty officer Matt Evans arrived at Bronte Beach 15 minutes after being tasked by Police. He quickly realised the scale of the incident and requested the Toll Ambulance Rescue Helicopter attend to assist with the search and rescue in the fading light. He also confirmed that NSW Ambulance paramedics were on the way to assist.

Toll Ambulance Rescue Helicopter - Photos by Foxfotos

After James reached the swimmers caught in the rip, he realised there were actually nine people in the group – not the six he first thought. He began coordinating Kirsty and the other lifesavers to return the swimmers, one at a time, to the beach.

“One guy was in a particularly bad way. He had ingested a lot of water and was drifting in and out of consciousness. He was frothing at the mouth and I had to clear his airway several times while I was paddling him back to the beach on my board,” James said.

The 20-year-old man was returned to the beach and given first-aid oxygen treatment by James and a team of Bronte lifesavers. NSW Ambulance paramedics arrived a short time later and he was taken to hospital for observation. Another man was treated for shock at the scene.

All nine of the swimmers that were rescued from the rip by surf lifesavers were brought back safely to Bronte beach for assessment and treatment.

Matt Spooner, Support Operations Manager, Sydney Branch, at Surf Life Saving NSW said that James McLennan’s rescue was heroic.

“It was the most incredible rescue I’ve ever heard of. It was full-on heroic. James’ efforts that day saved the lives of nine people – without doubt,” said Matt Spooner.

“Those guys are just so lucky James was on the beach that night. He deserves a bravery award,” he said.

Matt Spooner said the rescue was incredibly well coordinated between the multiple emergency service organisations that responded. He also said that the rescue highlighted the dangers of swimming outside patrol hours and at night.

James says that the successful rescue was a team effort and gives credit to all Bronte Surf Life Saving Club members and Waverly Council Lifeguards who assisted on the day. He also credits the focused rescue board training provided by the club.

James and Kirsty McLennan - Photo courtesy News Ltd.

The SLSNSW Rescue of the Month aims to recognise excellence in lifesaving. Each month a ‘Rescue of the Month’ is awarded at state-level for the most outstanding rescue performance for that period. Monthly winners have the chance to win the National Rescue of the Month and become finalists for the SLSNSW Rescue of the Year which is presented at the annual Awards of Excellence. Laerdel are proud supporters of Surf Life Saving NSW. Rescue of the Month winners receive Laerdel gift vouchers as recognition of their achievements. Ten prizes are awarded annually.

James and Kirsty McLennan were awarded SLSNSW Rescue of the Month for February 2020.


Thursday 9 April