Whanganui surf life savers claim gold in national Search and Rescue awards

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Surf Life Saving New Zealand have been awarded the national Search and Rescue NZ Gold Award for the Whanganui rescue of a father and daughter from cliffs in high seas. As well as a Certificate of Achievement for a Whangamata rescue, and a Certificate of Achievement recognising 25 years of dedication to surf lifesaving by a Taranaki clubbie.

Gold Award Whanganui rescue

The Gold Award for Operational Activity was presented to Surf Life Saving Whanganui on May 1, by Hon Phil Twyford, Minister for Housing and Urban Development and Transport.

The award recognises the skill and bravery displayed in the rescue of a man and his teenage daughter from cliffs at Kai Iwi Beach in hazardous conditions.

On February 18 last year, police asked Surf Life Saving Whanganui to launch a search for the missing swimmers, from Kai Iwi Beach. The pair had been reported missing, and it was feared they had been swept out to sea. The Coastguard were on standby, but the sea was too rough for them to join the search.

Within minutes, the first Surf Life Saving crew of Laura O’Keefe and Alex Forlong were on the water in an IRB (Inflatable Rescue Boat), scouring the water and coastline for any signs of the pair. And in a nearby watch tower, lifeguards Kaya Dobbie and Matthew Newell set up a command centre.

Surf Life Saving NZ was awarded the Gold Operational Award at the national Search and Rescue Awards for a rescue at Kai Iwi Beach, Whanganui.

The swimmers were spotted quickly, but were on a very slippery ledge, 3 metres up the Mowhanau cliffs, trying to escape punishing waves.

Laura manoeuvred the IRB close enough for Alex to swim to the pair, but the storm forced her against the rocks, injuring her hand. Laura took Alex back to shore, and picked up lifeguards Clarissa Nowak and Sophie Couper.

Meanwhile, an attempt was made to winch the swimmers by helicopter, but the conditions were too rough to get close to the pair safely. Pulling them up to the top of the cliffs with ropes was also ruled out because of the probability of falling rocks. So the IRBs were the only chance for rescuers to reach the cliffside perch.

In the 5 metre swells Laura carefully guided the IRB close to the cliffs, timing her bursts of throttle to strategically hop the boat between small sheltered patches behind large outcropping rocks. From the IRB Clarissa judged her moment between swells, and swam to the cliffs then quickly climbed to the ledge to reach the pair.

She began first aid on the girl’s injured ankle, which was suspected to be broken. Meanwhile a second IRB joined the rescue, and senior lifeguard Phil Gilmore also made the tricky swim to the ledge to help.

Between the two lifeguards they helped the girl scramble down the cliff, and safely handed her over to Laura and Sophie, who pulled her up into the first IRB. The father was unharmed, and Phil helped him reach the second IRB through the surf.

“The lifeguards involved in this two-hour operation demonstrated courage and skill for this rescue”, Search and Rescue New Zealand said.

The rescue was also awarded the Surf Life Saving NZ Rescue of the Year for 2018.

“Our lifeguards got there quickly, and once they realised the enormity of the peril that these two swimmers were in and the size of the surf they quickly rang in back-up,” SLSNZ National Lifesaving Manager Allan Mundy said.

“Our crew working together on the rescue were all experienced lifeguards, and they were all working together as a team. And at the same time were planning possible extractions of the swimmers with the other emergency services. It was hazardous conditions, and they used carefully thought out plans and clever skills to deal with a difficult rescue.

“There was no way the swimmers were getting off that ledge without the assistance of the lifeguards, and it was evening – if it hadn’t been done then, they would have faced night on the ledge, which would have been very perilous, it wasn’t a safe place to be.

“That team definitely saved two lives, they’re humble when you talk to them about it, but they made a massive difference to that family.”

Whangamata rescue

A Certificate of Achievement award was presented to Phoebe Havill, Callum Fulton, Andrew Earl-Peacock and Andrew Hodgson of Whangamata Surf Life Saving Club for the rescue of a mother and her two daughters who were trapped inside the hollow sea-filled centre of Whenuakura Island, on November 20 last year.

Senior lifeguard Phoebe Havill was contacted by the owner of a kayak company on Whangamata Beach, and told that three rental kayaks had been out for several hours and not returned.

Phoebe scrambled the Whangamata Callout Squad, and local lifeguards Callum Fulton, Andrew Earl-Peacock and Andrew Hodgson came together to formulate a plan.

They launched their IRBs and headed straight out to Whenuakura Island, which is known locally as Donut Island as it has a hidden hollow centre, accessed through a narrow archway, where water channels funnel through in large swells – making it dangerous to enter and exit.

Due to the tide and strong surge breaking inside the island, it was considered too dangerous for the IRB’s to enter the channel. So Phoebe and Callum swam in with helmets, tube and fins. They negotiated submerged rocks and fought strong currents to reach the stranded family.

A decision was made to use a small side exit of the island, typically less exposed to surging swells. Callum assisted the first of the daughters off the rocks and helped her into the waiting IRB. But the conditions changed and the side exit quickly became a no longer a viable option for extracting the remaining two.

Phoebe and Callum decided an attempt would have to be made through the main channel. The lifeguards secured the kayakers in rescue tubes and towed them through the surges of water in the archway, out to the waiting IRBs. The trio were returned to shore, assessed and left the beach requiring no further treatment.

Search and Rescue NZ said the team worked together well, with a strong focus on everyone’s safety during the difficult rescue, and responded wisely by adapting their plans when the conditions deteriorated.

“Without the local knowledge and skilled people on hand, as well as the right rescue equipment, the trio would have faced waiting in unfriendly conditions until the swell died down before they could leave the island. In this case, the surf didn’t drop until late in the evening,” Mundy said.

“It was an extremely difficult situation, which they would not have been able to get out of without the assistance of the highly trained lifeguards. The location of the patients also meant they would not have been able to be seen without surf lifeguards swimming there.”


Certificate of Achievement recognises long-standing service to Surf Life Saving NZ

Taranaki’s Adam Fraser was recognised with a Certificate of Achievement for his dedication and commitment to search and rescue operations and Surf Life Saving New Zealand.

Search and Rescue NZ said Fraser is “considered by many to be at the forefront of search and rescue (SAR) in Taranaki”.

He has been heavily involved in the Fitzroy Surf Life Saving Club since qualifying as a lifeguard 25 years ago. And is currently serving his seventh year as SAR Co-ordinator of the Club’s emergency after-hours callout squad as well as volunteering for the squad as a Duty Officer.

Adam’s knowledge and passion for SAR were recognised by his appointment as Mentor, then Instructor at the National Lifeguard School. This is the highest qualification and level of lifeguard training in New Zealand.

As well as spending many unlogged hours developing and training the callout squad, Adam also volunteers as a marine swimmer for the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter. He is an environmental marine SAR subject matter expert and is currently training to become a NZSAR Evaluator.

He is the chairman of the National Lifesaving Advisory Group, Chief Examiner for the Taranaki Region and volunteer lifeguard at the Fitzroy Surf Life Saving Club. Over the years, Adam has also played a key role in multiple life-saving rescues – some of which have been recognised at a national level.

He is described by his colleagues as a person with outstanding energy. He is well respected and highly skilled at managing his team both on and off the water. He is a forward thinker, strategic planner, and inspires others to perform to the best of their ability.


**Media kit:
File photos for Surf Life Saving NZ can be found here.

For more information, please contact:
Allan Mundy, Surf Life Saving New Zealand National Lifesaving Manager
Phone: 027 245 2660  Email: