Guardians of the surf: Surfers involved in as many rescues as volunteer lifesavers

Stu Nettle
Surfpolitik

screen_shot_2015-02-17_at_10.35.39_am.pngIn 2011 I wrote a short article about the number of surf rescues being done by recreational surfers. The topic arose following discussion with Robert Brander, AKA Dr Rip, who'd made observations suggesting surfers made more rescues than were officially recorded.

I never did publish that article. The reason being, almost all the evidence I had - save the two rescues I was involved in myself - was anecdotal. Despite hearing about many rescues few were officially recorded. What appeared to be a good story amounted to little more than hearsay with not a lot of facts. And while Swellnet isn't the Royal Society we need some empirical evidence to hang a headline upon.

Enter Anna Attard. Anna is a science student at the University of New South Wales and recently did her honours thesis titled ' Guardians of the surf: The role and value of surfers in Australian beach and coastal surf rescues'.

The information Anna used to form the basis of her thesis was collected via a survey on Swellnet. You may have seen it on the homepage last March. 1048 people responded to the survey and this number was whittled down to 545 when overseas entries and incomplete surveys were removed.

While the survey data prevents an exact calculation, Anna estimates that the number of surfer rescues is significant. "It would equate to 5,000 rescues per year,” says Anna, "which is comparable to the number of yearly rescues conducted by volunteer surf lifesavers."

By her estimation 45% of all rescues on patrolled beaches are made by surfers, with most of these rescues taking place when the beaches were busy with lots of people in the water. The number of surfer rescues rises to 53% on unpatrolled beaches.

Importantly, Anna found that 60% of the surfers interviewed did not have any formal safety or first aid training, but those that did were involved in more rescues. The implication being that if recreational surfers undertook such training the number of rescues would increase.

Over the last two years Surfing NSW has run 'Surfer's Rescue 24/7', a free CPR and board rescue course. Surfing NSW claims to have put 5,000 surfers through the course with more dates planned for 2015 (see here for dates). No such courses exist for other states.

Mark Richards was accredited in 2013 and said the Surfers Rescue 24/7 course “made me think about what I would do if I happened to stumble across a bad situation that’s happening in the water.”

“A surfer’s recreational enjoyment can often take place in some pretty dangerous environments, so it’s safe to say that over the course of their life, they will have to assist in a rescue or even perform CPR on someone. I think it’s essential for anyone who surfs to have these skill sets.”

Anna Attard thinks that information from her thesis can assist the Australian Water Safety Council's goal to reduce drowning deaths by 50% by 2020. That goal is set across all waterways: oceans, rivers, and lakes. However, as 90% of beach drownings occur on unpatrolled beaches the challenge, says Anna, “is finding a way to reduce the risk in areas where lifeguards are not present.”

That's not her only ambition. Anna also hopes her study will finally put surfer rescues on the official record book and that it provides “the deserved formal recognition for surfers who act as voluntary rescuers.”

Other statistics Anna found:

  • Rips represent the major hazard leading to rescue.
  • The dominant emotional response of people rescued is panic.
  • The highest proportion of rescues occur on quiet beaches with few people around.
  • Swimming is the activity associated with most rescue events (63%), with board riding associated with 25% of rescues.
  • Males 18-29 represent the largest demographic of people rescued.
  • Surfers with prior water-safety training are more likely to perform a higher number of rescues, however ability to perform rescues is not associated with formal training, but rather number of years’ experience surfing.
  • Seventy-eight percent of surfers are happy to help, while 28% express feelings of annoyance or inconvenience, generally towards unwary swimmers.
  • Results of this research suggest that 63% of surfers feel they have saved a life. This value may be enhanced through improved training of surfers in basic water safety rescue techniques.

 

Comments

seaman-staines's picture
seaman-staines's picture
seaman-staines commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 11:08am

I would guess it could be even higher than this, we have all made rescues over the years no doubt and I would think most of these have been genuinely life threatening situations, not just preventative actions.

scottishsponger's picture
scottishsponger's picture
scottishsponger commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 11:17am

It's good to see some data on this. I did the Surfer's Rescue Course and although I'm an experienced surfer, there were some useful rescue techniques taught which I was not aware of. These could be critical if you were confronted with a rescue situation, not only to save someone else's life but also to ensure you don't put yourself in danger as well.

scottishsponger's picture
scottishsponger's picture
scottishsponger commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 11:21am

On a semi-unrelated topic someone should start a campaign about the importance of wearing leg ropes in the surf. It's possible some of these rescues could have occurred as a result of twats who'd lost control of their board which subsequently hit someone in the head. No leggie = no surfy (unless there's no one else around)

mickj's picture
mickj's picture
mickj commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 11:45am

I also think the surfer population does particularly well at a 'broken windows' approach to rescues, i.e. killing the issue off before it escalates to panic stations.

In my experience, it's relatively rare to encounter a CPR or spinal board type situation (thankfully), but we can all spot the person who's going to end up in a trouble from a mile away. A few words of advice or redirect out of a rip and a more severe scenario is avoided 90% of the time.

Hard to quantify this effect but it happens a lot and well away from the eyes of the clubbies most of the time.

Craig's picture
Craig's picture
Craig commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 11:55am

Too true, you can always tell when someone is about to get into trouble or is starting to panic, and some helpful advice right there and then usually saves them from getting into further strife or the need to be rescued. This would up the numbers if included.

stan's picture
stan's picture
stan commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 4:47pm

how true, when I first started more experienced surfers would word me up if I had that 'oh shit' look on my face, I am more then happy to return the favor now if needed.

Mushroom Man's picture
Mushroom Man's picture
Mushroom Man commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 10:23pm

Agree mickj,

Only had to do one serious rescue but helped plenty out of rips or warned them of a rip. I guess as surfers we are good at reading the conditions and can tell when they are changing... The subtle change in wind and tide in a shifting lineup. We look for it cause we know it might improve the waves, or make them worse and we should make the most of what we have but the majority of t he population can't spot even the most obvious of rips.

Of course, most importantly we are already in the water when clubbies are on the beach. Not a criticism of them, they have a different job to do an generally do a great job of marshalling a large population away from danger in the first place.

mk1's picture
mk1's picture
mk1 commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 1:00pm

Good point Mickj

I've only done one serious rescue (where the guy was drowning and no-one else was around to help) but the number of times I've guided someone out of a situation that was becoming dangerous, I couldn't even begin to guess that figure. The more I think about it, the more of them that come to mind.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 5:55pm

Not to mention guardians of the pool! I was standing next to the pool on the point a couple of weeks ago when I realised that hard as it was to believe a bloke 20m away who had seemed to be dog paddling was actually drowning! I was about to jump in fully clothed when one of the off duty beach inspectors on his way to jump off the rocks dived in and pulled him out. He wa breathing but unconscious when he got him out. In the pool! Drowning!

Craig's picture
Craig's picture
Craig commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 6:01pm

Wow!

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 6:28pm

You're avatar makes me feel happy Craig.

Craig's picture
Craig's picture
Craig commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 9:08pm

Haha, my pleasure!

chook's picture
chook's picture
chook commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 7:48pm

anyone got any advice here? i've gone to the aid of a few swimmers that were panicked and struggling. they were in the impact zone with a fair swell. each time i put them on my board and shepherded them in. but it was not a pretty affair. they came off the board with every wave, i was worried they were going to get a fin chopped or hit by the board.
what's the best thing to do? take my leash off and push them into a wave? keep leash on and put them on board and swim in next to board? head out and get them beyond the impact zone and wait for the lifesavers to come out (it has always been at patrolled beaches)?

Dave Drinkwater's picture
Dave Drinkwater's picture
Dave Drinkwater commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 8:49pm

Hey Chook,
Unfortunately there is not one answer, the conditions will dictate you actions and the person in trouble. Heaps of info now on board rescue but think carefully before you act. Keep your distance, be in control and be clear and reassure the person that all will be good.

scottishsponger's picture
scottishsponger's picture
scottishsponger commented Thursday, 19 Feb 2015 at 8:29am

I was taught to always keep your leggie on, not to put it on them. Chances are they won't be able to ride a wave in (prone) on your board anyway if they're flustered and exhausted and will come off and land in the impact zone. It's better for them (and you) if you stay with them and the board all the way to the shore. (Then you can give them a lecture/bollocking for swimming outside of the flags in an obvious rip). There are some good board rescue techniques which allow you to stay with them and your board and maintain your control of the situation all the way to the shore/boat.

Also, no-one's going to be getting my brand new, custom-shaped board to ride in on no matter how close they are to drowning ;-)

scottishsponger's picture
scottishsponger's picture
scottishsponger commented Thursday, 19 Feb 2015 at 1:09pm

I might have been wrong about the leggie, according to Surfers Rescue. You might find some answers to your questions in here Chook, a guide from Surfers Rescue:

http://www.surfersrescue247.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/SR247-Brochur...

Dave Drinkwater's picture
Dave Drinkwater's picture
Dave Drinkwater commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 8:42pm

Ive personally made/been involved in over 10 rescues over my 35 years in the water that would have ended in death. I had a giggle the other day attending nippers with my children when i asked to put on one of there vests, the lady said, you need to be qualified and earn those colours. I tried hard to imagine her in 8 to 10 foot conditions, she would be another victim. The most recent was Easter at Boulders 2014, were 2 fisherman got washed off either side of the peg. Surfers rescue heaps of people and in most times never get a thanks in the ones I've Known. I teach surf survival to kids every year for school surfing and its a feel good thing that these guys are out there ready to help some body in need. Surfers rock and NSW life savers should sell beer and great food at their clubs to fund their great volunteer service. Its a no brainer, who was the mastermind who made it illegal?

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 9:04pm

Dave I agree with just about everything you say except the service of alcohol at surf clubs. It should actually be illegal to drink on surf club premises. The connection between alcohol and drowning is well known and I am aware of one situation where the service of alcohol in a surf club led directly to a drowning death.

Dave Drinkwater's picture
Dave Drinkwater's picture
Dave Drinkwater commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 9:20pm

Yeah cool blind boy,

Totally agree, i just volunteer for the local club and we are always scratching for money. I was probably thinking more restaurant/cafe at night. I don't condole alcohol and water.

batfink's picture
batfink's picture
batfink commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 8:54pm

Absolutely, support all of the statements above.

I reckon the figure is much higher than the lifesavers. They will count anyone who was in the slightest trouble as a rescue, surfers won't event think twice about showing a numpty their way in, or will spot trouble before it happens.

Surfers are in the zones where the uninitiated are most likely to get into trouble, and least likely to be reported. Surfers are on virtually every beach (if you know any they aren't in, feel free to let me know), while lifesavers are only in populated areas. Surfers use the rips and know the way the ocean works, very often better than most lifesavers, and surfers are looking for the biggest and best waves.

Give yourselves a pat on the back.

And let's not even talk about the heroics of surfers helping people who have just been attacked by a shark. Those Ballina guys of recent times deserve a medal.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 9:07pm

Ha ha I just noticed those stats at the end. Some you would remember that I have been known to be in the 28%.

mk1's picture
mk1's picture
mk1 commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 11:30pm

Old and cranky!?

morris's picture
morris's picture
morris commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 6:23am

Nah, just delusions of grandeur hey blindy,:-))

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 6:29am

More like delusions of adequacy morris

suckin-sand's picture
suckin-sand's picture
suckin-sand commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 9:36pm

Back in the 1980s while surfing 3-4+ft Legian a swimmer in his 60s drifted past in one of the notorious rips, he was struggling and I asked if he needed help. He did. So I paddle into the rip, he hangs onto my board, now we are both getting sucked out to sea. So I put him, a large guy, awkwardly on my 6'3". So now the board is basically underwater and I'm swimming and kicking trying to push us across the rip back into the wave zone. It was ridiculously hard work. After 15 minutes or so we eventually made it to the beach. He was grateful and I was completely, utterly exhausted, splayed on the beach like a spent jellyfish. That was the end of what was looking like a fun surf for me, but I felt proud of myself. It's bloody hard to rescue a fully grown adult with a short board if the ocean is working against you.

mk1's picture
mk1's picture
mk1 commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 11:22pm

Ha! my one serious rescue couldn't have been more different.

The guy was kind of dogpaddling in a gutter rip just off the shore and couldn't get out of it. As it was rippy the waves were pushing his head under one after another and he was looking at shore so not seeing them coming, just getting mouthful after mouthful. I just waded out, grapped him under the shoulders and used his body weight to hold me against the sand and lifted/walked him out. Took about 25 seconds including running down to the water I reckon.

If it wasn't for his wife and kids screaming on the beach I wouldn't have even noticed, you just don't think someone can drown on a 1-2' day just metres off the sand.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 11:23pm

I've had a similar experience suckin - sand , also at Legian. But the German gentleman I aided walked straight up the beach without even acknowledging myself or what had occurred . I assumed he was in shock but that didn't prevent a string of curses being aimed at his beet root red back as he disappeared.

wally's picture
wally's picture
wally commented Tuesday, 17 Feb 2015 at 11:53pm

Yeah, I've conveyed a lot of people out of rips.
On the other hand, a mate of mine, not a strong swimmer, got caught in the sweep at Greenmount (of all places), and got into a bit of a panic and some Greenmount clubbies came out and brought him in.
The next day, he went over to the surf club with a carton of beer to thank them again. The clubbies were flabbergasted. They said, 'No one has ever come back the next day to thank us.'

Surf educators international's picture
Surf educators international's picture
Surf educators ... commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 10:23am

We are an association of surf educators, lifeguard services, surf scientists, surf schools etc. We are a big believer in surfers doing the primary recue in a lot instances and lifeguards, doing the secondary response. Surf lifesaving stats would surely include all these rescues. through our eduction we preach to people that if you are ever to take a risk in swimming away from patrolled locations - make sure there are surfers in the water because they can and will make a rescue. For those posts above in relation to rescues in the wave area, once the patient is in this zone they are on a shallow sandbank and will get washed in either way. The hardest part negotiating out of the rip has been done

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 10:43am

When you say washed in either way - you mean dead or alive right ?

Surf educators international's picture
Surf educators international's picture
Surf educators ... commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 11:07am

No washed in, please delete "either way"
After a wave hits its highly likely the rescuer and the patient will end up being able to stand on sand bank, job well done.

wally's picture
wally's picture
wally commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 11:38am

My first choice approach for a rip rescue is to move to the calm water beside the struggling swimmer, often no more than 3 or 4 metres away, and get them to swim towards me. 3 or 4 desperate strokes and they are out of the rip bobbing beside me. I do this to maintain their dignity, for mutual safety, and also it is a pretty good instruction to them in dealing with rips. As soon as they feel that the rip is not pulling at them, then relief washes over their face immediately. They get the difference. Then I'll move with them to shallower water and I'll say a few things about rips. Show them the rip they were in which usually shows how narrow the rip current usually actually is. So, most of my 'rescues', I don't actually touch the swimmer. Or, only touch on the shoulder to reassure.

Of course, if they are plainly exhausted or can't swim, then I'll go into the rip and pull them out. Only had to do that a couple of times in deeper water. Plus, maybe half a dozen times with kids and old people in rips in water they can actually stand in, but lack the strength to walk out of.

the-roller's picture
the-roller's picture
the-roller commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 10:40am

The list of folks i've had the random chance of saving from drowning is quite long. With one incident standing out from all the others.

To this day it still freaks me out to think about it.

Randomly in the right place, at the right time. for the right people....

Just one more surf goon embracing the horror on a daily.

http://www.cracked.com/article_15746_embrace-horror.html

spiggy topes's picture
spiggy topes's picture
spiggy topes commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 1:04pm

Hey Wally. Very diplomatic and instructive rescue. I'm a crip so have the advantage often of wearing fins. One very late summer arvo at Bronte it was head high from the south and pouring through, really nice waves but Bronte is a challenge even when you do know it. So out in the middle heading north west straight into the rocks were a couple in their early 30s. Girl was in a flat panic and guy was holding her up. So I paddled over and the guy seemed OK if tired. They had had a picnic, nice bottle of wine (smelled it on their breath - intense) and then gone for a refreshing dip at one of the real danger beaches of Sydney for swimmers. Anyway, the girl was dead weight, could barely move. Flopped her on my board, told the guy to hold my leggie and kick-push the board if he could. We paddled the girl against the sweep into the break and the guy luckily was confident enough to stay there for a while. I flopped on top of the girl and we got a great wave in. The council lifesaver had been packing up shop and when he caught sight of us he was out immediately on a paddle board, saw we were OK in whitewater and went for the bloke. I surprised myself with calm but it was only a couple of minutes from very bad. Point is, the lifeguard did his bit, I did mine, the bloke was humble and grateful and the girl, still weepy, gave me a big sloppy kiss. And I got a few more before dark!

chook's picture
chook's picture
chook commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 2:12pm

what the hell, spiggy? i thought i was the only kneelo at bronte.

the-u-turn's picture
the-u-turn's picture
the-u-turn commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 5:32pm

Excellent article Stu. Thankyou.

The U Turn
...a little Aloha goes a long way.

spiggy topes's picture
spiggy topes's picture
spiggy topes commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 9:01pm

That Bronte thing was back in the late 90s Chook. I'm enjoying the water temps north of the border now but there's still no thrill like a big Bronte day, or a summer NE leftie at Tama

Leen's picture
Leen's picture
Leen commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 10:13pm

Its been a long time but several at Bondi and Tamarama on a kneelo and in of all places Kauai.I think its because the surfers are on the spot, I would push them my board and drag them in and politley tell them what they were doing wrong.All were very grateful and it really made my day that maybe I saved a life.

nickg's picture
nickg's picture
nickg commented Wednesday, 18 Feb 2015 at 11:42pm

"helped" a dude late on Australia Day at Bronte a few years ago. tiny ne windswell but the fella had just about given up when i got to him.

i took my leggie off and passed him my board, didn't want to let him grab me cause he looked scared.

he couldn't even lie on my board, kept falling off.

he reeked of some type of alcohol, bourbon or something.

both of us couldn't get in on my tiny board and eventually i passed him over to two clubbies on paddleboards who happened to be tooling around and saw us floating out to sea. just in time, cause i was prepping the dude cause i was going to swim in and leave him to float off with my board. one less drunk idiot at the beach, i guess.

pro clubbies had packed up for the day but one took the time to come down and yell at me when i got to the beach. he blasted ol' drinky twice as hard when he was eventually dragged in.

wingnut2443's picture
wingnut2443's picture
wingnut2443 commented Thursday, 19 Feb 2015 at 8:51am

" ... estimates that the number of surfer rescues is significant. "It would equate to 5,000 rescues per year,” says Anna, "which is comparable to the number of yearly rescues conducted by volunteer surf lifesavers." ... "

So, how the fuck do we get our share of the money clubbies get from the various levels of government. Surely, we are due our share of 'surf equipment' partly or fully paid for by the government?

Maybe someone can set up a website or something so surfers can log / register their 'rescues'? Swellnet? An add on to the website? If coastal watch can have a 'log your surf session' maybe swellnet can have a 'log your rescue'?

We can then have published data to prove the point?

Use it to lobby the government so the 'surf rescue' course gets fully funded so no out of pocket cost for the people doing the course? ... and maybe even pay for some 'equipment' to be given to those who do that course?

????

Surfboard Design and Construction Kook. Evidence is here: www.ffwsurfboards.com.au
*FFW - Few Fun Waves ... that's what it's all about for me.

trippergreenfeet's picture
trippergreenfeet's picture
trippergreenfeet commented Thursday, 19 Feb 2015 at 2:54pm

Interesting take on our services...

Like most of us I've rescued the odd person over the years and gave for-warning to many more, not even surfing related, like basic safety on beaches with nasty shories on those lovely calm summer days with the odd sneaker one wave sneaker...a toddler at plays worst nightmare.

P.S. Wingnut, what a trip is the FUP.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Thursday, 11 Jun 2015 at 2:37pm

If you're interested, Anna Attard's full UNSW study on surfer rescues can be read here:

http://swllnt.com/1GzQYBK

It's available to the public for free for 50 days. And if you'd like any further info contact Dr Rob Brander.

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