I was one of them.
This beach is beautiful, isolated, generally very calm and tranquil and is not patrolled (so no flags, no life guards).
If you look at the picture here (which I took later), a lot of people would think this is a pretty safe, normal section of beach.
When CC & I arrived with our 3 kids and 3 of her brother’s kids, we quickly noted that there was a strong rip around 50 metres from the rocks. We also know (from experience) that there is a permanent, more gentle, rip right next to the rocks.
We saw a family swimming happily between the two rips (there was plenty of space), so we chose to plonk ourselves in the same spot and swim. I assumed the family swimming there knew exactly why it was important for them to stay where they were.
Apparently I was wrong.
CC & I took shifts looking after the kids in the waves and the youngest cousin (2yo) on the sand, making sure all the kids knew where the rips were and to stay in-line with our beach towels and beach bag we had set up right in the centre of the safe zone.
While we were swimming, I noticed the Dad and the son of the other family straying dangerously close to the rip. I assumed they were just testing it’s strength from the sand bar.
Apparently I was wrong.
A few seconds later, the son (who looked about 10 or 11) was sucked out into the rip. Then the Dad dived in after him.
I immediately yelled to our kids to stay where they were and I went after the Dad and the son. I could see from the way the young fellow was struggling already that he would not last and, while the Dad looked OK and was trying to calm his son, he looked like he did not know what to do.
As I went, I yelled to the two young girls who were also approaching the rip to “get back over near the other kids over there” (pointing to our kids who I had just left in the safe water).
At first I tried to reach my arm out, with my feet on the sandbar, to take the hand of the young son, but he was too far away – less than a metre away and I couldn’t reach him.
So I dived into the rip.
Sidenote: I am a very strong swimmer. I have extensive beach experience and I know how to deal with being caught in a rip, I’ve been caught in a couple of them previously (only a couple – remember, I know how to spot them) and swum out of each one comfortably. Just FYI: rescue is a VERY different proposition.
All of that said, I figured it was better to have two strong adult swimmers helping the struggling kid than one.
As I got to them I tried to redirect them because they were both trying to swim against the current. I kept yelling to them to “swim along the beach”, but no matter how many times I yelled it, nor how much water I took on as I carried the son on my shoulder, they both seemed to want to fight the current.
Sidenote here too folks: If you are caught in a beach rip – never, ever fight the current. Don’t panic, just swim parallel to the beach and let the bloody current take you diagonally out to sea. You’ll be fine. Rips lose their strength out past the breakers and you’ll get out of the current and be able to slowly swim your way back to shore, catching the waves as you go.
Anyway…after a short while, I changed my message: “swim toward the rocks!” I yelled and they both started to change direction.
Now please don’t think that these folk are stupid – they aren’t. It’s easy to get caught in a rip and when you’re stuck in a rip and you feel like you’ve lost control, you often lose control of your good sense as your body fills with adrenaline and your brain stops making considered decisions. I totally understand their actions and here’s why…
By the time the Dad and had started swimming toward the rocks, the son was spent. He couldn’t swim anymore and I was carrying an almost dead weight. And the Dad didn’t look too flash either. I started to second-guess if we were going in the right direction (we were, I was just knackered and not thinking straight anymore).
That was when I saw the grandfather dive into the rip.
Sidenote: If you’re a grandparent and your child and your grandchild are stuck in a rip – PLEASE DO NOT swim out to get them unless you have a floatation device like a surfboard, surfski or bodyboard.
As I started taking on water myself, I saw the grandfather get dragged out straight past us in the rip. I realised there was nothing I could do for him. It was a horrible feeling. It was then that I thought we would probably lose at least one of us out there.
The Dad swum back to get the grandfather. I was concerned about how long I could keep going with this kid.
Then I saw a big, strong, long-haired bloke swimming into the rip. At this point I could feel my own muscles failing and I truly did welcome the help. I was glad that I had not been forced to make a decision between saving myself and saving this young kid. That decision point had been coming fast until the new fellow got out there (turns out he was a brother or cousin. From here on I stick with cousin, but I don’t know).
The cousin (who I thought was an adult, but I later learned he was probably 15 or 16) arrived and took hold of the young son. In my fatigue, I just let go and swam next to them until the cousin yelled out to me to take the kid’s other arm (he was struggling with the weight too). Realising that I had just handed my whole burden over, I swum back under the son’s arm and took half his weight.
I was still looking behind us at the Dad and the grandfather who were some way back. They were still moving, but it looked like the grandfather was in serious trouble.
It was then I turned and saw CC about to come in.
“NO!” I yelled at her, angry that she would ALSO risk herself out here. What about our kids if we BOTH die!?! I think I swallowed a bunch of water at the same time, so she probably heard nothing.
But then I saw the bodyboard she was carrying.
The Dad managed to swim close enough to CC to take the bodyboard (of course CC was smart and handed the bodyboard with her feet planted in the sand of the sandbar and out of danger). The Dad paddled the bodyboard over to myself and the young son as the big cousin swum in to get another bodyboard CC had managed to get from another family on the beach (we only brought one!).
The cousin took the second bodyboard out to the grandfather and, with the boards, we all managed to paddle on further, given a second wind by the assistance of the bodyboards. After another good while of kicking along on the bodyboard, I thought I might be able to touch sand – I COULD!
I truly hope you never know the excitement you feel when your feet touch sand after you’ve been fighting the ocean so long you start thinking you may die. But let me tell you, it’s a pretty fucking amazing feeling.
I yelled out to the Dad that we can put our feet down and we both did, then dragged the bodyboard in with the son still gripping to it.
We walked out of the surf with the grandfather and the cousin coming in on the other board behind us.
Everyone had survived.
It was such a simple incident and could have ended so tragically. We all survived because CC had the presence of mind to get bodyboards out to us.
Anyway, I staggered onto the beach and collapsed on a towel. The other family were so grateful.
I nearly spewed from over-exertion.
I’m still absolutely wrecked now as I write this hours later.
It feels good to be alive.
At every beach there are sections of the water which have a strong current pulling constantly out to sea. You cannot swim against a rip current. No one can. Michael Phelps would swim in one spot against a rip. Some beaches have 2 rips, others have dozens. It all depends.
The trick is to be able to spot them. On patrolled beaches, the safety flags will never be placed too close to a rip.
Telltale signs of a rip before you get in the water (according to Surf Life Saving NSW):
- Rip currents will occur in deeper water, so it’s usually a darker colour compared to the white breaking waves over a sandbank.
- Because the water is deeper, there will be fewer breaking waves which can give the appearance of a safer spot to swim
- Rip currents can move things like sand, seaweed, or debris back out through the waves.
Telltale sign that you are in a rip:
- You are being pulled out deep by a current
Here is the full SLS page on beach safety and rips: http://www.surflifesaving.com.au/beach-safety#Rips
Stay safe at the beach folks. If you aren’t an experienced beach swimmer and don’t know how to stay away from rips – please only swim at patrolled beaches. And please, if you get in a rip, don’t panic – try to relax and get the attention of the life guards by raising your arm.