Early morning swim turns to tragedy for young lifeguard

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Written by Ian Stuart a former member of the St Clair Surf Life Ssaving Club.

Early on a Wednesday morning nearly 50 years ago two Christchurch lifeguards threw their surfboards into the waves at a popular beach a few minutes from the Dunedin city centre, and dived onto them.

The sun had barely risen over the white sands of St Clair beach as Ian Graham, 26, and Sandy McDowell, 19, paddled out to catch a few waves before heading off to work and to university.

The two friends were fit, at home and confident in the water after their lifeguard training at the Waimairi Surf Lifesaving Club in Christchurch.

But the brutal and tragic end to their early morning surf turned the two men into reluctant heroes and sent shockwaves around the country.

Les Jordan, a young Dunedin lifeguard was on a training swim at the popular swimming and surfing beach when he was attacked without warning by a shark. He died minutes later despite the heroic efforts of the two Christchurch lifeguards to get him to the beach for help. They knew at least one shark was circling in the blood-stained water and could attack again at any time and without warning.

The shark ripped off Jordan's right leg and badly mauled his left leg, as he swam about 250 metres out from the beach.

Jordan began waving his arms and calling for help from Graham who was sitting on his board about 50 metres away. By this time McDowell had caught a wave and was on the beach.

"The first thing I knew was that I could hear this call. I looked over and he was waving his arms. I didn't even think obviously about a shark and went over to give a hand," Graham said.

"When I got closer he said 'There's a shark, a shark's got me.' I distinctly remember saying 'Don't be bloody silly, there are no sharks around here.' Of course, unfortunately, there were."

They were the last words Jordan uttered.

At 6.45am on February 5, 1964, Jordan, 19, had minutes to live.

When the shark, thought to be a white pointer and called 'the splendid savage of the sea' by French oceanographer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, took Jordan's leg, it severed the femoral artery, the main blood vessel. With every beat of Jordan's heart, more bright red, oxygenated blood gushed into the water from the raw stump.

Within a minute or two he was almost unconscious, surrounded by blood-stained water. By now Graham knew at least one shark was close but he did not initially see it. It was spotted near Graham, before McDowell arrived, by St Clair Surf Lifesaving Club veteran Duke Gillies, as he ate breakfast at his house overlooking the beach. Gillies later saw two sharks following the rescuers in.

Graham struggled to pull Jordan onto the middle of his surfboard and realising he needed help to get him ashore for the medical treatment he desperately needed, he yelled to McDowell.

At 19 McDowell was a very fit lifeguard and a strong swimmer and was about to swim out from the beach to help but changed his mind when Graham yelled there was a shark in the area and he could become its second victim.

"That was my fear that he would swim out and I did everything I could possibly do to dissuade him. It was a long way out but I was quite fearful that would have made him a prime target."

McDowell grabbed his board and frantically paddled through the surf.

Neither man thought about the risk they faced or the chilling thought that Jordan's blood in the water might spark a feeding frenzy. Having had a taste of human flesh, the shark could return for another go at the victim or his rescuers.

That selfless bravery was later to earn them both four bravery awards, including the George Medal, one of the Commonwealth's highest bravery awards.

But looking out for their own safety was not a priority for either Graham or McDowell. By the time McDowell reached the bloody scene, Jordan was in a parlous state. He had lost a huge amount of blood and was not speaking.

"Sandy said to me, 'Oh, he's lost his leg' and I said 'don't be bloody silly, it's just tucked up underneath him'," Graham said.

"It was really only when we got to the beach that we realised it wasn't there."

The two lifeguards put their surfboards together and pulled the mortally hurt Jordan across the middle of both boards. In 1964 surfboards were long, buoyant and relatively stable, not like the light, small and manoeuvrable boards today's surfers use.

"It was fairly difficult because Les was certainly unconscious at that stage," said Graham.

Desperate to get their patient help and determined not to lose him, the experienced lifeguards kept their boards side by side and sat on them, paddling as best they could while holding Jordan across both boards as they made their way through the one to two-metre surf to the beach.

Graham said after they got Jordan onto their boards both he and McDowell spotted at least one shark following the blood trail, often less than half a metre from the boards.

"We were encouraging each other and saying 'don't leave your arm in the water for too long. There wasn't an awful lot of conversation because we were more concerned about getting him to the shore."

The sharks came within 20 metres of the beach but by then Graham and McDowell had all but reached the shore and were in waist-deep water.

"It was slow and difficult getting back to the beach. It was when we got into the breaker line that we were all tossed off," said Graham.

"The water was shallow enough that Sandy and I could grab hold of Les.

"The first thing Sandy and I thought of was that we had to get him out of the water. We just grabbed him and dragged him up the beach."

Help was close by. Gillies and his daughter Joan arrived. "She said to her dad, 'He's gone, there is no blood'," Graham said.

Desperate attempts to revive Jordan on the beach failed. An ambulance which arrived soon after took him to hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Graham said after 50 years he recalls Jordan being alive but unconscious for only a very short time as they made their way ashore. But he was almost certainly dead when they got to the beach about 15 minutes after the shark took his leg.

Tragically, Jordan's father, Alan, also heavily involved in surf lifesaving, was on the beach and saw the commotion. He watched as his son was brought ashore.

"He would go down most mornings and watch Les do his training swim," said Graham.

Graham believes Alan Jordan rushed to the surf lifesaving club and called the ambulance.

Gillies and his daughter watched the tragedy unfold from their St Clair home. Joan Gillies, then 17, had just returned after a night shift at Dunedin Hospital where she was a nurse aid as she waited to get into nursing school. She said even after 50 years, she still vividly recalls what happened.

Her father had watched Les swim through the surf as the board riders waited to catch a wave.

McDowell rode a wave to the beach and a few minutes later Duke Gillies saw Graham heading towards Jordan.

"He thought he must have had cramp but when he saw Jordan slumped on the board he grabbed his binoculars for a closer look,'' Gillies' daughter said.

"He saw the fin of the sharks behind the board and knew something was seriously wrong. That was when he sped down to the beach in his pickup truck on the wrong side of the road and I thought, hell, something's wrong if he's doing that."

Her mother Molly ran to the beach and Joan raced down on her bike moments later. After a quick inspection of Jordan she realised it could not get any worse.

 "Dad said 'He has lost his leg, you and Mum had better go and have a look along the beach and make sure  it hasn't washed up because we don't want anybody else finding it'," she said.

There was no sign of the leg and by the time Joan and her mother returned to Jordan a doctor had arrived. She took her father's truck to the Jordan family home in Albert Street, two blocks behind the club to get Jordan's mother, Anne, who was making his lunch.

"She took off and ran to the beach," said Joan Gillies.

Joan Gillies followed the ambulance to the hospital with Mrs Jordan and the family learnt Les was dead. It began an intense grieving process from which Jordan's parents never fully recovered.

 "But he was actually dead on the beach. He had no leg and the blood just ran straight out. It's about two minutes before your blood is gone. He was white. He had bled to death," Joan Gillies said.

Graham said out the back of the surf there was little they could do to stop the flow of blood and save Jordan. Had they been able to put a tourniquet on Jordan's leg, it may have helped but they wore surfing shorts and nothing else.

The citation with the surf lifesaving bravery award said the two men did "all that was humanly possible" to save Jordan's life.

Graham and McDowell went in the ambulance to the hospital, hoping Jordan would survive.

"It might have been wishful thinking but I thought that perhaps he could be revived. That was the hope."

Graham and McDowell were pall bearers at Jordan's funeral but in the following weeks both felt a great sense of sadness they could not save him.

Graham said even after 50 years there are still moments of sadness.

"At times it comes back. Every time I am in Dunedin, I always go out to St Clair," said Graham, 75, now retired and living in Christchurch. "It's reflection."

Graham said neither he nor McDowell consider themselves heroes. When Jordan called for help they went.

 "We were doing what we had been trained to do. You help whoever you can," Graham said.

The tragedy shocked Dunedin and New Zealand but it devastated the Jordan family, all of whom were heavily involved in surf lifesaving.

Les Jordan's father Alan was on the executive of the New Zealand Surf Lifesaving Association, a judge at the New Zealand surf lifesaving nationals and was heavily involved in the Otago Association and the St Clair club. A family photograph shows Alan Jordan competing for St Clair in the Batt Club harbour swim in 1930.

His mother Anne was the first president of the Moana Rua Ladies Surf lifesaving Club between St Clair and St Kilda club and his brother Maurice was the first paid patrolman at St Clair and a South Island representative.

Les Jordan was the secretary at the St Clair club and the Otago Surf Lifesaving association.

Les Jordan's other brother Alan, also a member of St Clair, said his family stayed with surf lifesaving for a few more years but after two more fatal shark attack they gave the sport away.

Bill Black, a lifeguard at the St Kilda club, a few hundred metres north of St Clair, died in March 1967. He was training in the surf when he was hit by a shark. His body was never found but the surf rescue belt he wore later washed up. It had a huge piece missing where the shark had bitten it.

Graham Hitt, died in September 1968 while diving at Aramoana at the entrance to Otago Harbour.

"Mum always said it was the fishes' home. Sharks live in the sea. It was wanting food and thought it was something else," Alan Jordan said.

"That is how she took it. It just happened and wasn't the shark's fault. That was her only way of dealing with it," he said.

He said his father swam at the beach every day, winter and summer but after Les' death the whole family struggled to go to the beach and maintain an interest in surf lifesaving. 

The family persevered with surf lifesaving for four more years but when Hitt died at Aramoana, it was the final straw.

"It knocked the stuffing out of all of them," Alan Jordan said.

He said his parents never recovered from Les' death.

Broadcaster Murray Deaker was a close childhood friend of Les Jordan. They lived opposite each other in the same St Clair street. His death "absolutely shocked" New Zealand.

Deaker was picking fruit in Central Otago when he was called with news of the tragedy. As he returned to Dunedin for the funeral, the person he thought of most was Anne Jordan.

"No mother could have loved her son more than Anne loved Les. He was a kid, unlike me, who never put a foot wrong," Deaker said.

"He was a hell of a guy, a bloody good guy."