Between the Flags: Wild west coast rescue almost ends in disaster for naked Frenchman

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Off duty lifeguard Mitchell Powell saved two lives within three days. Photo / Supplied

NZ Herald

By: Mitchell Powell

At our beautiful but remote beaches around the country, teenage lifeguards are thrust into life and death scenarios with limited resources, often alone. Herald social director Mitchell Powell rescued two people who nearly drowned in separate events at Baylys Beach when he was 18 years old. The volunteer lifeguard tells his incredible story as part of an NZME campaign to help raise money for Surf Life Saving.

The day of the first near-drowning I'd only just picked up an inflatable rescue boat (IRB) from Whangarei thanks to my dad loaning me his car.

I inflated it, fuelled it, checked safety equipment and finally, with the help of a local lad who happened to be passing, lifted the outboard engine on to the boat and stowed it away - anticipating it would remain untouched for the next two weeks until the season began.

An IRB is inconceivably useful to lifeguards; they're the tool with which hundreds of lives are saved every year.

I was home from my first year away at university in 2013 and caught up with some school mates for a couple of beers that night.

Out of nowhere, the same local who saw me earlier in the day ran up to my house, frantic and out of breath speaking of someone being sucked out to sea in a rip.

We jumped into my dad's car and collected the IRB, thankful the car had a tow bar.

It was only luck that my dad was home - without a towbar to collect the IRB, it's rendered totally useless.

At the beach we were greeted by a small crowd of bystanders - news travels fast at Baylys - as well as two French women, who were hysterical and also happened to be topless.

Through some fairly non-verbal communication, we worked out the boyfriend of one of the women had been swept out to sea.

Conditions were rough – it was cold and the sou' wester was humming - the waves were well over twice the size of me.

The bloke in the front the IRB had plenty of experience fishing off the west coast. Other than that, his "lifesaving" experience didn't exist.

These are the working conditions you're gifted with in such parts of New Zealand.

The Northland Electricity Rescue Helicopter St John and life guards on Baylys Beach 19 December 2013.
Photo / Northland Emergency Services Trust

After around five minutes' searching, we spotted him. The look on his face was one I'll never forget.

The small French man certainly wasn't expecting an orange boat to jettison over a giant wave toward him.

Freezing, exhausted, and having accepted the fact he was going to die, we arrived, hauling him into the IRB just in time to narrowly avoid a large wave's imminent detonation.

We spun around and headed for shore, definitely the easiest part of the saga thus far.

Composing myself, my friend in the front of the boat had a look on his face you certainly wouldn't expect to see after the heroics he'd just pulled off.

Not joy nor adrenaline, but bemusement, and he was pointing into the bottom of the boat.

Looking down, I was surprised to see the Frenchman was stark naked.

Spreadeagle, exhausted, crying - gasping and overcome with the idea he'd live.

Back ashore, a peculiar sort of beach wrestling took place as the trio was reunited.

A crowd of at least 30 had amassed now, I thought best to give the Frenchman and his friends some time to clothe.

They didn't think it necessary.

And in front of half the Baylys Beach population, he ran over for a bear hug of epic proportion.

I saw him coming and tried to instigate a handshake, no deal. The naked man embraced me. My joke that he should really take me out to dinner first was lost on him.

The Northland Electricity Rescue Helicopter on Baylys Beach on December 19, 2013.
Photo / Northland Emergency Services Trust

A couple of days later, I decided we really needed another piece of equipment at Baylys.

Off I travelled again in dad's car to pick up a quad bike, I couldn't rely on borrowing his vehicle in future, should the IRB be needed.

Back home, I took the old rust-bucket quad bike for a drive down the beach and bumped into a mate, James Diamond, on the way.

We talked for 15 minutes then glanced out to see horrible surf - sou' wester still blowing full noise - and a young woman was travelling out to sea rapidly, the majority of the time underwater.

Heroically, James didn't hesitate.

After a quick discussion, he sprinted for the water, while I flew back to collect the IRB with the quad bike I'd only acquired an hour earlier.

A trainee lifeguard and I launched the boat to retrieve the woman from my exhausted mate.

I knew she would be in bad shape, some days the sea just has a meaner look about it than others.

I had an ambulance called before we'd even departed shore.

Oxygen flowing and defibrillator ready, I really thought she was about to stop breathing.

The ambulance arrived a short time later, thankfully, and paramedics decided she needed a helicopter out of there.

Because of the poor signal down the beach, they couldn't get a hold of one over their radio.

After a couple of phone calls to SurfCom in Auckland, Surf Lifesaving's version of 111, I had one on the way.

To this day, ordering a helicopter and watching it charge up the beach toward me remains the single coolest accomplishment of my life.

Potentially a reflection on me rather than the act?

So many minor things had to go wrong at the same time for those near-death events to take place the way they did over those adrenaline-filled three days.

Horrifyingly, even more had to go right for everyone to live.

Frequently, this is the reality for lifeguards all over the country, and as we've already seen this summer, frequently, they don't go right.

Funding only comes from people like you reading this - and those like a recently passed and overwhelmingly generous Baylys Beach local who at his death, went a long way to ensuring the events told above never happen again.

Please give generously.

This summer NZME is helping Surf Life Saving New Zealand 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.


This article was originally published in the NZ Herald on January 8, 2020.