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A day of crayfishing on the 2nd April 2021 turned into a nail-biting rescue mission for three brave men at Rooi Els in the Western Cape recently.

William Boltmann, his brother Richard and their friend Francois Koekemoer were preparing to head out to sea at the Rooi Els slip when they received word that two fishermen had been swept off the rocks nearby. Without hesitation, the three men decided to take on the difficult task of saving the two casualties.

“When we were told where the guys were, I knew it wasn’t an easy place to rescue them from,” William says. “I thought about how we would get them out as we didn’t really want to risk getting into the water. So I was thinking, what can we throw as we didn’t have anything on the boat? The Pink Rescue Buoy was right there so I told my friend to get it, and it ended up being the main tool we used in the rescue.”

The NSRI’s Pink Rescue Buoy initiative was launched in 2017. To date, more than 75 lives have been saved by this initiative.

Flotation devices for bystander rescue

“Over the years we realised that there were no bystander rescue devices next to any water bodies,” says Dr Cleeve Robertson, CEO of the NSRI. “We wanted to think of a really cost-effective, easily deployable device we could use and so in our first year we experimented with pool noodles. Unfortunately, these were too light, couldn’t be thrown and didn’t support more than one person at a time.

“So we went back to the torpedo buoy concept, and after consulting with Australian Lifeguard Services, we settled on an appropriate size and buoyancy of 100 Newtons which can essentially support four people on one buoy. Pink became the colour to distinguish them from lifeguarding buoys, and the rest is history!”

The rescue

Conditions on the day made the beach launch quite challenging for William and his team, and once they got closer to the fishermen they realised the swell was quite high, and that the two casualties were dangerously close to the rocks.

Instead of panicking, the men wisely chose to stop for a moment to gather their thoughts. They decided that Richard would drive the boat, and that William and Francois would conduct the actual rescue.

“We decided to try and get close to them so that we could throw the rescue buoy to them. My dad taught us that we have to keep our nose into the swell, so that we could clearly see what's happening. That way, if the swell begins to break, you can ramp over it with the boat,” William recalls.

The men waited for a gap in the swells and reversed in towards the two men. They then tried tying a rope to the rescue buoy and throwing it into the water, but the strong winds kept blowing it back.

The fishermen had already been in the water for about 45 minutes by the time the boat arrived and were starting to get tired and drop below the surface. William heard the victims’ desperate cries for help and realised he would have to do the unthinkable.

Image credit: Mike Leresche Photography

“I had to just jump in the water. I knew from reading reports on the Sea Rescue website that the person who tries to rescue someone often ends up drowning themselves, because the victim hangs on to them, so I had already decided that I would give them the rescue buoy and not hang around. So I jumped in, took the buoy to the guy and told him to hold on, and then got back to the boat as quickly as I could. Then Francois pulled him in with the rope,” says William.

Once the first man was safely on the boat, they tried once again to throw the buoy to the second man, but the wind was still an issue. So William jumped into the water again and repeated the same process. His brother was already driving the boat away as the second man was pulled on board, because a large swell was threatening to overwhelm them.

“We made it out just in time. My dad was watching from the shore and he said he was panicking. And my mom was probably praying very hard as well. If you go and look at where we were, there are rocks everywhere, and we weren’t even looking out for that. It just happened as it was meant to – those men weren’t meant to drown that day.”

The men raced to get the two victims to an ambulance that was waiting on the shore with NSRI. Both chose to go home after receiving medical treatment.

Heroes don’t wear capes – they go crayfishing!

On World Drowning Prevention Day, William, Francois and Richard were given an award by the NSRI for their daring rescue. They have also been interviewed by several websites and newspapers, and yet, William is still extremely modest about the events that unfolded. In true down-to-earth form, the men still went out crayfishing after the rescue, as if it was just another day out on the water.

“We were just lucky, I guess. We’re getting the recognition now but we just did what we had to do at the time. If another boat had been there, they would have done the same thing. It’s part of being at sea. One day we may be the ones who need help,” William concludes.

NSRI CEO, Dr Cleeve Robertson presents Pink Rescue Buoy Awards to William Boltman, Francois Koekemoer and Richard Boltmann
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