Between the Flags: Woman spends 20mins at sea trying to save schoolboy

Monday, 6 January 2020

Focus: 12-year-old Draevyn Joyce, who cannot swim, is lucky to be alive after two strangers
rescued him after he was swept out to sea at Himitangi Beach. Video / Mark Mitchell

By: Elizabeth Binning
Chief of staff, 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.

As Clare Sandbrook's lungs filled with sea water she knew she had an impossible decision to make.

The youth group leader had a child on her back, his arms wrapped tightly around her neck and the weight of keeping him above the water preventing her from surfacing.

It wasn't a case of choosing her life or his but knowing if she didn't let him go two lives would have been lost that day.

"I was pretty much submerged and anytime I came up for a breath I got a whole lot of water so I kept on taking on water until I realised I couldn't take on anymore, I was drowning."

The 30-year-old knew she would have to take the boy off her back if there was any chance of either of them surviving.

"I thought that once I took him off my back he would drown but I thought 'I have to do it'. It was one of the worst decisions I have ever had to make in my life ... but I realised I was drowning so it was no use if I went down anyway."

Draevyn Joyce with Clare Sandbrook. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Sandbrook was at Himatangi beach with up to 30 children and several other team leaders on November 29 - the day before the official lifesaving season started there.

The group had gone for a summer picnic at the beach 32km west of Palmerston North, and there were three leaders supervising in the water when a rogue wave rolled in, knocking down 12-year-old Draevyn Joyce and another boy of a similar age.

One of the leaders tried to grab the boys but they all got dragged out beyond where they could stand.

Despite not being able to swim Draevyn pushed the second boy back towards the team leader and they made it back to shore - but he couldn't get back himself.

"I could see that Draevyn was struggling to get up, he just kept sinking beneath the water," said Sandbrook. "I went swimming as fast as I could and when I got to him he was going under.

"He grabbed on around my neck and jumped on my back. I thought I'd give it a go so I swam as hard as I could to get us up and out back to the beach but I couldn't get us up [out of the water] enough."

It was at this point Sandbrook knew she had to make that difficult decision and she took him off her back.

"I undid his arms off from around my neck and pulled him out from behind me and held his hand and I came up to the surface and was able to spit out a bit of the water and cough it up and get a breath. We both kept going under because of how boisterous the waves were.

"Fortunately, what I hadn't realised, was that I had given him enough time out of the water to get the water out of his lungs and to breathe a bit."

By this stage they were several hundred metres out to sea and the faces of those on the shore had become a distant blur. She estimates they had been out there for 10 to 15 minutes and they were exhausted.

Draevyn couldn't paddle, tread water, kick or swim.

"He certainly didn't seem to be capable of keeping himself up so I had to paddle as hard as I could and kick to keep him up but it meant I spent quite a bit of time underwater.

"It was pretty exhausting to try and keep him out of the water but we didn't have any options because the waves were just pummelling us."

"He said to me 'we are getting dragged out, we are going further out, we are going to die' and I said 'nah, we are not going to die'."

However, Sandbrook's outward confidence was tested each time she went under.

"It flicked through my mind it was pretty serious and certainly as I was underwater I knew it was touch and go."

Sandbrook managed to get Draevyn to float on his back, during which time they were able to catch their breath and she prayed they would make it back to shore alive.

Moments after she finished her prayer three "massive waves" rolled towards them but instead of breaking went over them instead.

"It was just like God answered our prayers straight away and we rested for a bit."

By now they had been fighting to stay alive for about 20mins and that was on top of the time they had originally been in the water at the beach. It was also getting late.

"I was pretty shattered and I realised we had to get in as a night rescue is pretty hard."

She tried to get Draevyn to kick but when he couldn't she clung to his hand and tried to do backstroke to get them closer to shore.

"It was pretty hard, I was like 'how can life be so cruel' but I was saying to him 'we aren't going to die'."

"Then this guy on a boogie board came cruising over … I was so chuffed to see him."

The guy was Hugh Dickson, a former volunteer lifeguard who had gone to the beach at 7pm for a boogie board.

Draevyn Joyce with Clare Sandbrook and Hugh Dickson. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"On my way out there I heard yelling and screaming behind me and they [the people on the beach] were saying there are swimmers out there."

Dickson had already spotted Sandbrook and Draevyn and was heading in their direction.

"They were a long way out, much further than anyone just going for a swim."

As he made his way towards them he could see them bobbing up and down in the water.

"I knew they would be drifting down so as I headed out I headed towards where I thought they would be. When I got there I couldn't see them and that's because they had drifted a lot further south away from where I was looking so I lost sight of them for a good few minutes."

There was a brief period where Dickson worried he had lost the pair for good.

"Then I spotted them again but luckily they were still afloat. I thought I might have missed the boat there for a moment and was getting a bit worried."

"I thought, 'here were go, it's gone bad quite quickly'."

Dickson and Sandbrook managed to get Draevyn onto the board and after negotiating several big waves they made it to shore where two fire engines, three police cars and an ambulance was waiting.

Sandbrook struggled to get up the beach. She was coughing up a lot of water, was cold and shaking and her oxygen levels were dropping.

"It took a long time for the shaking to stop."

Draevyn said he was "worried and scared out at sea" and was running out of energy by the time Dickson appeared.

He was given a phone to call his mother Kelly Shelford while they travelled to hospital in an ambulance.

"That's when I found out," she said. "He told me he had been dragged out to sea. I was absolutely panicking. I knew he was okay but I didn't know how okay he was."

Draevyn Joyce with his mother, Kelly Shelford, at Himitangi Beach. Photo / NZ Herald, Mark Mitchell

Shelford holds no blame, instead praising both Sandbrook and Dickson as heroes.

"She was absolutely amazing. If it hadn't have been for her he wouldn't have been here today.

"It was a freak accident. It's not something that could have been planned for.

"I'm just so grateful [Dickson] was out there. I don't think Clare would have had the energy to bring them both in. He was like a guardian angel."

Sandbrook is quick to brush off the praise, saying there was no choice but to go after Draevyn.

"Once you see someone drowning you can't do anything but go in for them. It's not like you go in wanting to be a hero but you look at them and they are drowning and you just have to help them."


This article was originally published in the NZ Herald on December 6, 2020.