A mass rescue of any kind is a big operation for a patrol to manage. On 17 February 40 people fell victim to being swept off a sandbar suddenly at North Cronulla. In a single moment what seemed like a perfect day at the beach could have ended in tragedy. This incredible operation has now been awarded with both the Surf Life Saving NSW Rescue of the Year and Australian Rescue of the Month.
It was a hot summer Sunday as thousands flocked to the Bate Bay beaches for the day. Conditions were moderate with waves up to 1.25 metres, the temperature hit 30 degrees and the water was warm. The masses were keeping cool in the water while just up the beach at Elouera the Australian Surf Rowers League (ASRL) surfboat finals were well underway.
Just before 2pm conditions suddenly changed. The tide began to rise and as water flowed across the sandbank, people swimming in the waves lost their footing and were pulled rapidly out to sea with the rip current.
One of the swimmers, Robert Gascoigne described the rapid change in conditions, “I entered the water between the flags up to chest height before diving under a wave. When I went to come up I couldn’t reach the bottom. I tried to take a wave back to where I could stand but realised I wasn’t gaining ground after a couple of attempts.”
Looking back at the flags Mr Gascoigne recounted that he could see he was a lot further out than he thought and he was being pulled to the north. He was one of 40 people who were quickly out of their depth and beginning to panic.
Almost immediately, the patrol tower responded and alerted the North Cronulla SLSC patrol and Sutherland Shire Council Lifeguards. A mass rescue was underway. The red and yellow flags were dropped to indicate a closed beach while 12 rescue boards, six swimmers with rescue tubes, an Inflatable Rescue Boat (IRB) and jetski made their way out to the group.
Realising the enormity and severity of the incident, surrounding surf clubs raced to assist with an additional two IRBs and the Sydney Branch Support Operations jetski, together with the two Lifeguard jetskis.
As the lifesaving assets triaged the situation to bring the swimmers to shore, three vehicles arrived from Elouera along with six additional surf lifesavers and lifeguards.
SLS Sydney Duty Officer and Safety & Emergency Officer of the ASRL event Joel Wiseman remembers hearing a radio callout for lifeguard jetskis. “I heard the call and then looked to my right. There were about 10 people on boards and with rescue tubes racing towards the water. I quickly tasked all the event’s safety craft down the beach to assist.”
Another Duty Officer recalls the response to the unfolding emergency as calm. “There was a procession of craft and lifesavers delivering people to the beach then returning to sea to rescue more.”
“Back on the beach, patrol members assisted the patients, reassuring them and providing additional support as required. The beach was strangely silent with all eyes fixed on the water.”
Mr Gascoigne said he looked around and noticed a man and young girl with their hand up signalling for assistance as well as eight others who were struggling. “A lifesaver on a board paddled over to me within minutes. I held onto the handles on the board before a jetski took me to shore. It was all carried out so fast that I was in a reasonable condition.”
Within 15 minutes the team were returning the final patients to the beach with many thanking their rescuers personally.
“At all times the surf lifesavers conducted themselves in a thoroughly professional, reassuring and supportive manner, for which I am very grateful,” said Mr Gascoigne, a comment that was echoed by everyone rescued that afternoon.
The patrol estimated that up to 2000 beach-goers were on the beach at North Cronulla at the time of the rescue. They were witness to one of the biggest, collaborative mass rescues conducted by Surf Life Saving.
Joel Wiseman commented that many of the people watching who were attending the ASRL event said it was one of the best rescues they’d ever witnessed and that he was proud to be part of the team.
“For me, it was the biggest mass rescue I’ve ever seen unfold. Without the quick thinking and seamless collaboration between so many people, we avoided potential tragedy on the beach that day.”
Brett Richardson, Lifeguard Manager at Sutherland Shire Council said proudly after the event, “The professionalism and response displayed is a great example of the depth we have in the Bate Bay…it resulted in the lives of many being saved.”
For North Cronulla SLSC President Geoff Budd it was an impeccably performed operation and something that he says reflects the training and skills of his members and their cooperation with others. “It could have turned really bad very fast. Everyone just fell into place with what needed to be executed. It was an excellent rescue and result in that no one needed resuscitation or defibrillation.”
The rescue was so successful in its response that not a single injury was recorded.
On Saturday 31 August the team were awarded the NSW Rescue of the Year at the Awards of Excellence and just two weeks later were presented with the national Rescue of the Month award at Parliament House in Canberra.
"We're all so proud to receive these awards and take them back to the club to show the wider community recognition in what was achieved on that day in February," said Geoff.
"They recognise the great and unique partnership between the Bate Bay clubs and the Sutherland Shire Lifeguards," said Brett.
"From the club perspective one of the really special things about the rescue is that it really started 15 years ago," said Geoff. "Everyone on that patrol was 25 years-old or younger and they have all come through the Nipper program in our club, highlighting the sucess of the Nipper program for us."
This rescue was awarded the February 2019 State and National Rescue of the Month and the 2019 NSW Rescue of the Year.
Updated Tuesday 17 September 2019