Sunday, November 15, 2009

The missing details: Bronte Beach edition

Saturday afternoon and I had volunteer lifesaving duty.  My (broken) collarbone is knitted enough to be able to go in for a swim in modest surf – but if there were a difficult rescue I would pass the duty onto someone else.  Really I am a pair of eyes – the job is to watch and assess – not to make a hero of myself.

I was sitting chatting with Rod, a fellow lifesaver at the North end of the beach watching quite a large crowd and getting modestly annoyed when the (fibreglass) board riders were sailing too close (or into) the flagged bathing area.  (Swimmer’s heads tend to come off badly when hit with a fibreglass surf board.) 

At the very south end of the beach is a rip (a current that goes out to sea) and some lifesavers were standing around chatting around the rip.  This is the same rip where the Muslim men were rescued last November

There was someone swimming in the rip – with quite good – even stylish strokes.  But he was getting nowhere.  Rod and I were debating whether he was even likely to get into trouble.  The stroke was – as I said – strong – but given the current what he was doing was futile.  We watched for about a minute when I decided to walk down the other end of the beach and see what the other lifesavers wanted to do about it.  I was not worried.

As I walked the guy stopped swimming – just gave up – and started to drift out to sea at about 1.5 metres (5 feet) per second.  I got to the lifesavers about the time I thought it was actually going to be necessary to go in and get the guy – but the professional lifeguard on the beach had run down, got a rescue board and was already on his way to effect the rescue.  These are the same lifeguards from the TV series

The victim was still treading water, the surf was not rough – and I suspect if he knew what he was doing (that is knew to swim across the current) he could have rescued himself.  But I was still a little peeved at myself for missing the easiest of board rescues (and the kudos/self congratulations that would go along with it).

Ex post we realised there were a few missing details:

First – the lifesavers at the South end of the beach simply did not notice the guy caught in the rip.  Maybe they noticed his fine swimming stroke and assumed he was not a “customer”.  Maybe they were looking at pretty women in bikinis.  Maybe they were just preoccupied.  Whatever – they did not see.

Second – the customer was from Bavaria.  He was a tourist.  He had once swum competitively (hence the stylish swimming stroke) but he had never swum in the surf.  He simply did not understand his predicament and he had no idea how to get out of it.

Third – the customer was wearing cut-off cotton jeans – not a nylon swimming costume.  That makes it just so much harder – and an amazing proportion of our rescues are of people who go in fully or partially clothed.  [The fully clothed are often Muslims.]

Fourth – the customer had had a couple of beers.

If I had known these four details I would not have walked to the other end of the beach – I would have run as fast as I could.  Those details – none of which were readily apparent – changes the interpretation of the guy in a rip from “interesting and slightly comic” to “life-and-death”. 

The existence of a problem was obvious to me – and I (incorrectly) presumed that it was similarly obvious to my fellow lifesavers.  I just assumed because I had noticed everyone had noticed – and hence I acted almost apathetically to the danger.  Moreover I assumed away my four missing details because the customer had a fine swimming stroke which created an illusion that all was under control. 

That is I suspect a very human mistake…




  1. Cute metaphor John. And srsly, thanks for keeping an eye out. When I moved to Aus I was a strong swimmer (swim team, nice stroke), had played on beaches like waikiki hundreds of times but had never, ever experienced proper surf in an idyllic setting like we have in Aus and I got caught out at Bondi one of my first swims. swam and swam and got nowhere until my aussie friends came to help me out (swim across, swim across). it's easy to be overconfident in our surf.

  2. Is the fun of the job saving people or getting to see who is wearing their swimming costumes when the tide goes out. To quote someone far wiser than me. ;-)

  3. so finally what happened to the guy. i hope he lives.

  4. I didn't know Geithner was from Bavaria.

  5. The guy was fine. He did look funnily a touch like Geithner - if only in the curly hair and slightly over-youthful way.

    But he sounded German and was drunk.

    There are lots of fun parts of the job - but essentially its an excuse for standing on a beach wearing dark sunglasses and looking at everybody.

    Oh, and chatting to someone else for six hours.

    Surf lifesaving is one of the most egalitarian things I have done. I am the worst swimmer in my group - so I am the clearly inferior lifesaver.

    But I have sat on chairs on the beach with a plumber, a CEO, a finance executive and a male nurse and talked as complete equals for six hours. That is nice.


  6. I learned to "swim across" as a boy, swimming in a tidal river. Not much in the way of tide in Bavaria, I suppose.

  7. I'm from Tassie, not many beaches with big waves. Consequently my first trip to Bondi consisted of drifting outside the flags. All the lifesaver on the beach could say was "get back inside the flags". Oh well, I made it to shore. And that's how I learnt what the flags are for. Personally I think lifesavers make too many assumptions, but then I don't spend all day at the beach watching out for people.

  8. 'Survivor bias' jokes would be in bad taste, would they not ?

  9. Are you seriously going to post that without throwing out a few possible targets for the metaphor? :)

    Robert in Chicago (yes, the one you know)

  10. My rescue story. On a body board at the edge of the flags an Asian couple him holding her, at 2nd glance they were looking very stressed, just out of their depth but no idea about surf and no rip thank goodness. Pushed them the bb to hang onto some fool told me to take the wrist strap off. He let go of her and grabbed the board then I got her to hold it. Then the lifesavers arrived. No credit of course.
    Nuther day floating round saw fellow gbb (geriatric bber) chatting with a guy hanging onto his board. Thought just mates till the lifesavers turned up.
    Lesson assume in trouble till proves otherwise esp osv's and dont assume anyone will thank you.