'You have to survive this': New dad's fight for life after Piha drowning scare

Monday, 10 February 2020

Paul Gillick, pictured with his then-newborn daughter, Nina Gillick, last year. The new dad thought of his daughter
as he fought for his life in a near-drowning at Piha. Photo / Supplied

By: Cherie Howie
Reporter, NZ Herald

This summer NZME is helping Surf Life Saving to help save lives. The charity relies on the goodwill of thousands of volunteers, fundraising, grants and sponsorship to keep our beaches patrolled. Here's your chance to help raise money for new equipment and lifeguard training. Click here to donate.

As the ocean dragged him away from the shore, waves crashed over his head and he began swallowing seawater, new dad Paul Gillick found himself thinking: "This is it".

Then he thought of his baby girl and her mum.

Gillick, who got into trouble during a Waitangi Day dip at Piha, knew he had to survive for his partner Nicole Sykes and their 3-month-old daughter, Nina.

"[I thought], 'You have to survive this, for other people. I'm not going to let this end it', and I started to fight a bit more."

Gillick, who has lived at Piha for five years, swims at the popular West Auckland beach most days and had never got into trouble before.

He usually spoke to lifeguards about the conditions before getting in the water, but didn't on Waitangi Day, despite an outgoing tide and "pretty rough" conditions.

A confident swimmer, the 42-year-old went between the flags and swam about 40 metres into the surf, ducking under a couple of waves.

But within minutes Gillick, a legal consultant for Herald parent company NZME, found himself being pulled towards Lion Rock.

Initially, he thought he could handle it.

"I kind of relaxed and tried not to panic."

But waves kept crashing over him, he started swallowing seawater and feeling short of breath.

After trying to swim for shore when he briefly touched the bottom, fatigue - and worry - kicked in.

"I'm a fairly strong swimmer but I was really worried. I was actually thinking, 'This is it'. And I was thinking, 'This is a bit of a ridiculous way to go'.

"You go for a short swim [and nearly drown]. It was a harsh lesson."

Paul Gillick lives at Piha and swims at the beach most days. On Waitangi Day, he nearly drowned. Photo / Supplied

Realising he needed help, Gillick raised his arm - something he now says he should've done sooner.

Using an IRB, lifeguards - who were already watching him after another swimmer raised concerns - reached him within a minute, he said.

"The guys pulled me in and it was absolute relief. I was lying on the floor of the boat and I had taken a bit of water in. The guys were saying, 'Relax, relax'."

After being checked by the lifeguards, he was allowed to go home, Gillick said.

"I felt a bit shaken. I was really pale. I drove quite slowly to my house and I just collapsed at home."

He was sharing his story to remind others to remember their limits in the water, and not be afraid to ask the lifeguards about sea conditions before going in.

He was so comfortable swimming at Piha he usually went before work, when no lifeguards were on duty, Gillick said.

"I just take it for granted [that I'll be okay]. It's made me reassess how I approach swimming."

The grateful dad had already returned to the beach to thank the lifeguards who saved his life, a humbling experience.

"They were so nice. They said it made their day to have someone thank them. So they were thanking me, and I'm thanking them for saving my life."

Lifeguards on patrol at Piha Beach, in Auckland. File photo / Sylvie Whinray

In December and last month NZME helped Surf Life Saving New Zealand raise money for new equipment and lifeguard training, as part of the Between the Flags campaign.

He planned to donate to the charity, and encouraged others to do so too, Gillick said.

"The best thing you can do is make a donation."


This story was originally published in the NZ Herald on February 8, 2020.