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On 1 October, four members of the same family were saved from certain drowning by the quick-thinking and courageous actions of Port Alfred resident, Edward Gutsche. He shares the incredible story.

The sea was flat on that morning, and Edward Gutsche, a keen bodyboarder, was taking a stroll along Kelly’s Beach in Port Alfred. The beach, a popular spot for joggers and dog walkers, was fairly busy at the time, and Edward was planning to have a swim and then head off home. But from the corner of his eye, he saw a few swells and decided to run home and get his bodyboard and flippers so he could take advantage of the unusual conditions. “People don’t usually surf at Kelly’s,” he says. “It’s more of a family beach.”

Ed rode the waves for close to an hour and a half. Even though his legs were getting tired, he decided to ride one last wave before heading off home. As he emerged from the water, he noticed that the beach had all but emptied out. And then suddenly a woman and small child were running towards him, shouting frantically: “My husband, my children, I’m sure they’re stuck!”

Edward looked out to sea and saw four bobbing heads, about five to 10 metres apart and about 50 metres offshore. He knew the water here had rip currents, and recalled a paddle-out he and a group of friends had held for a friend who had been caught in one and succumbed.

“The lady had no phone on her, so we couldn’t call the NSRI,” Ed explains, and there was no one else on the beach.

Quick thinking

Ed made the decision that he had to go help them. He put his flippers back on, took his board and swam as fast as he could to the first casualty. “She was about 16 years old, and when I got to her, I told her to hold onto the board. Then I swam to her brother, who was probably about 12. I had to be a bit stern with him, because he was in panic. I swam him to the board where his sister was, and told him to hold on. I told the girl that she needed to look after her little brother,” Ed explains.

Ed left the siblings holding onto the board, and swam for the third child who was being swept out. He saw her disappear under the water and then dived down. “She was about a metre under the water. I pulled her up and as soon as her head was out of the water, she gasped and coughed. I put her on her back and rescue swam her to her brother and sister, all the while tapping her on her chest. Once the three children were reunited, they seemed to calm each other down. But the board was drifting, nearing the rocks that signal the start of the open ocean.

“The father had drifted quite a bit further, and was about 50m away. I knew I had to get to him,” says Ed, who by this time, was exhausted. “I actually swam the hardest to get to him.” When Ed was nearby, he could see the father was frantic. When he got closer, the man started clawing at Ed in panic. “I shouted at him. And then said, ‘Look me in the eyes, just look me in the eyes. I will save you.’”

He became almost hypnotised, Ed recalls. “He turned around and let me rescue swim him. It was more difficult as he was heavier, but we made it to the board where his children were still holding on.”

Fuelled by adrenaline

At this point, Ed looked around him, across the water and to the beach. He was certain the NSRI would have been called by now, but the beach was empty. He knew there was only one thing left to do. He slung the bodyboard’s leash over his shoulder and started kicking. “We were probably about 250 metres out. I think at that point it was just adrenaline that kept me going,” he says.

“I was angling down the beach, adjacent to the rip, and then with each swell, I kicked a bit harder. We were getting closer to the surf. But these small waves can be tricky,” Ed says. I had to keep turning around to make sure they were all still holding on.” Then, the next thing, they were joined in the surf by another member of the public who had seen what was going on. “He came in and swam with us back to the beach and had a Pink Rescue Buoy with him for backup,” Ed says. “Once the family saw him, it seemed to calm them down.”

Once on the beach, the reunited family just held on to each other, and Ed could hear: “My children, my children, we’re safe, we’re safe.”

The ordeal lasted about 20 minutes. A little while later, the father approached Ed, still very shaken from the ordeal. “He broke down in my arms, and kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, you saved my family.’”

A moment of realisation

As Ed reached the car park, he looked back and saw the family, still holding onto each other. Nick Laws, the man who had fetched the Pink Rescue Buoy and accompanied them out of the water had said to him, “Bloody well done, do you realise what you’ve just done?” It took a while for it to sink in, but it was only later when Ed was in the shower that he recalled the face of the young girl under the water. “I closed my eyes and saw her. Her braids were floating around her head, and her eyes were closed. And then she opened them and looked at me. As long as I live, I will never forget that little face,” he says.

Had it not been for Ed, who was in the right place at the right time, the ending to this story would have been very different. “It’s devastating to even think about the loss ... if four members of one family had drowned. You can never recover from that. The mother knew they were in trouble, and she called for help.”

Ed thanks Nick Laws for his assistance. “Out of this near tragedy, I made a new friend.” Little did Ed know that Nick is a film producer with an impressive list of movie credentials – but that’s a story for another time. The NSRI thanks Ed for his selfless actions that day in saving the lives of four people, and for keeping a family whole. Thank you, too, to Nick Laws, who after seeing what was going on, went into the water to assist Ed and the family out of the water with the Pink Rescue Buoy.

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