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NSRI EMERGENCY
OPERATION CENTRE (EOC)

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When Willemien Fourie and her family stopped at Kabeljous Beach in the Eastern Cape for a stroll, they could not have imagined the ordeal that was about to unfold – a near-fatal encounter with a treacherous rip current. Thanks to the swift response of four Good Samaritans and the NSRI’s Pink Rescue Buoys on hand, however, they survived.

“We weren’t even planning on swimming. We just wanted to take my sister, who was visiting from Pretoria, to the beach for a walk,” says Willemien Fourie, who visited Kabeljous Beach on 26 November, a sunny Sunday afternoon, with her family.

“There were no lifesavers there, but other people were in the water and they seemed fine, and so we started walking in the surf, and eventually, we were up to our hips. We were having a good time. We were still standing on the sand. It seemed perfectly safe.”

Willemien’s 13-year-old daughter, Giano, however, was nervous of how deep they were getting and asked her mother to exit the water.

“I said, ‘Look my love, I can still stand here. It's only up to my hips,’” says Willemien. “I told her we’d be another five minutes and then come back.”

But a minute was all it took. When Willemien turned back to her sister, Patrys, she was no longer where she’d been, only a few metres away.

“She was just gone. And then I saw her, far out, about 15 or 20 metres out to sea. I couldn’t believe it. Even then, though, I didn’t understand the danger.”

While she was talking to Giano, Patrys had been caught off guard by a wave, knocked over, and dragged out to see by the strong current.

Not realising how serious the situation was, Willemien swam towards her sister, calling out to her husband, George, who followed – as did their 15-year-old son, George Jnr.

Soon, all four were being pulled further and further away from the shore.

“My sister’s face showed extreme panic. We tried to swim back to shore, swimming hard with each wave, but it was no use. I started to get tired, and I knew the others would be tired too. Then my son, our hero, turned to me and said, ‘Mommy, I'm so sorry. I'm not forsaking you. I'm going to get help. The people on the beach need to know what’s happening, we need to call in the rescuers.”

The anxiety and panic Willemien experienced in that moment is something she still struggles to articulate: “I felt he was the only one that could really help us at that stage, because he’s the strongest swimmer. But the fear of seeing him leave, knowing that if he got into trouble, there was nothing I could do… If he hadn’t done that, there’s no chance we would have survived. None at all.”

A strong swimmer, George Jnr managed to reach the beach, and headed straight for one of the NSRI’s Pink Rescue Buoys (PRBs) stationed nearby. Thankfully, a bystander recognised that he was too tired to re-enter the water and held him back.

By this time, Giano realised that her parents were in danger and drew the attention of some bystanders – one of whom alerted the NSRI.

At 14:22, Jeffreys Bay duty crew were activated, rescue craft 37 “Charlie” was launched and Mobile 37 deployed, while NSRI rescue swimmers, SA Police Services, EC Government Health EMS, Gardmed and Relay ambulance services also responded.

Before any official rescue services arrived on the scene, however, four Good Samaritans intervened, saving the Fouries with the help of the three PRBs at the beach.

A former provincial swimmer, Natalie Rhodes, entered the water with her bodyboard to assist. Natalie reached George Snr with her bodyboard, and they both used it to stay afloat.

Duvan van Breda of Duvan Fishing Charters, a former lifeguard, and Gustav Schlechter, a South African champion swimmer, also did not hesitate to launch into the water, rescue buoys in tow, to assist after hearing shouts for help.

Duvan swam out to Willemien’s sister, deducing that she was the more fatigued of the two women, while Gustav, close behind, reached Willemien.

Moments later, yet another (unidentified) Good Samaritan arrived, having swam out with the remaining PRB, and deposited the buoy with Natalie, who was then able to relinquish her bodyboard to George Snr, who was nearing exhaustion by this stage.

It took roughly 20 gruelling minutes for the Fouries and their rescuers to reach the shore, one by one, as they struggled to escape the rip current.

By the time they were all on the beach, NSRI and rescue services had arrived, and administered medical treatment. Willemien and her husband, who “had a splitting headache and nausea,” spent two nights in hospital, and were then discharged.

“I really want people to understand the danger of rip currents,” says Willemien. “You can’t see them. We never imagined we were in danger, because our feet were still on the ground. We weren’t swimming. It happened so quickly.”

Indeed, several other lives have been rescued from rip currents since that Sunday with the help of PRBS, the NSRI’s innovative and simple solution to prevent drowning at beaches, rivers and dams where no lifeguards are on duty.

“In the past, before we had the Pink Rescue Buoys, we had a lot of callouts where people attempting to rescue others, were themselves drowning,” says Station 37 commander Paul van Jaarsveld. “It seems the public is catching onto the idea of the Pink Rescue Boys and they are using them, and it is saving lives. That extra buoyancy can make the difference between life and death.”

With regards to rip currents, Paul cautions members of the public to check ocean conditions before entering the water. “It's much better to swim at a beach that is manned by lifeguards, or at designated beaches between the flags. People who are not used to the ocean should educate themselves. If you get caught in a rip current, don't fight it; swim at 90 degrees to the current, this will help you to escape. Try to float. If you spot someone in trouble, always call NSRI or ask a bystander to do so.”

Learn how to identify a rip current and what to do if you are caught in one in this summer safety video:


Willemien also encourages groups visiting the beach to not all enter the water at the same time, and to decide on an emergency hand signal before entering the water, in order to make friends or family members on shore aware if they are in danger. “This would have made a huge difference to our rescue time,” she says.

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