Donate now

Lives risked in the rip

Constantly reading the conditions in sea and sky, lifeguards can prevent many incidents before they even begin. But when a rip current pulled a bodyboarder out to sea, one Devon team proved they were ready to give their all.

Lifeguards training with an Arancia inshore rescue boat (IRB) in Devon

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Lifeguards training with an Arancia inshore rescue boat (IRB) in Devon

Low tide, Croyde Beach. 4pm. As the sea retreated, a messy 2m surf was pounding onto the sandbar. Familiar rips had developed at both ends of the beach and were keeping Senior Lifeguard Freddie Hedger and his team busy, patrolling the water and shepherding learner surfers back between the flags.

A bodyboarder in serious trouble

Noticing a bodyboard float back to shore without its owner, Freddie looked further out to sea and spotted a surfer and a bodyboarder in serious trouble.

He signalled to Lifeguard Sean Deasy, who made his way to the pair using the rescue watercraft (RWC), closely followed by Freddie on a rescue board.

As Sean arrived, the surfer, who had initially stopped to help the bodyboarder, was clearly struggling and frightened. The bodyboarder – 26-year-old Mary Harkin – was barely conscious. Sean tried to grab her, but on the RWC he couldn’t get through the large surf, which was now dumping heavily onto the nearby sandbar.

Freddie arrived soon after and decided to ditch his rescue board to try to get through the surf and get to Mary. By now, she was face down and unconscious. He fought through and got hold of her, lifting her airway clear of the water, and working hard to protect her from the onslaught of waves that were overpowering them both.

Lifeguard training taking place in Devon

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Lifeguard training taking place in Devon

‘It would have been a different story’

Surfer Fraser Gibb, who got himself to shore, reflects: ‘It’s hard to describe just how grateful I am that he managed to get out there. I was in awe of his swimming ability as the conditions had changed quickly and it was extremely difficult to control myself, let alone keep someone else afloat. If Freddie hadn’t swum out there like he did, not giving up until he had her, it would have been a very different story.’

I was in awe of his swimming ability; the conditions had changed so quickly
Fraser Gibb

Sean tried three times to pick the pair up, but the driving surf made it very difficult to get them safely onto the RWC’s sled. Eventually, Freddie managed to grab a handle, using his other hand to hold Mary’s head, and Sean dragged them 10m to slightly calmer waters until Freddie couldn’t hold on any more.

While Sean fought the surf, the pair in the water were dragged under by a wave and disappeared. Sean could only watch, waiting anxiously for them to surface as they were washed around in the turbulent water.

Swimming back to safety

At last Freddie appeared, gasping for air. He dragged Mary up, forcing himself back under the water. Sean brought the RWC round a final time – Freddie managed to get Mary slightly further aboard this time but was so tired he couldn’t hold them both on the sled.

As they slipped back into the water he signalled to Sean to return to the beach and ready the casualty care kit. He would have to swim Mary to safety.

He started to make headway and got one foot on the sand, where he could at last slowly push for shore. As he finally got to the beach, Sean and fellow Lifeguard Jack Middleton rushed in to help look after Mary.

Back on dry land

To everyone’s relief she was breathing, but she was clearly in a bad way. The lifeguards began casualty care and carried Mary to the top of the beach, where paramedics were waiting to give further treatment.

After a night in hospital, Mary was well enough to come back to the beach and thank the people who had saved her life.

A nurse based in London, she was on holiday with her friends and co-workers Ingrid and Lisa in north Devon – a free holiday they had won in a surfing competition.

RNLI Area Lifesaving Manager Phil Hill says: ‘The lifeguard team were happy to see Mary and her friends go home safe and well. As nurses, they do an incredible job helping people in their own lives and we have a lot of respect for them.’

Mary Harkin with her friends during a fundraiser for the RNLI

Photo: Mary Harkin

Mary Harkin with her friends during a fundraiser for the RNLI

‘They put their lives on the line for me’

Bodyboarder Mary says: ‘I knew I was in trouble when I spotted a surfer nearby and realised just how far out from the shore I’d been carried out. I can’t put into words how much the RNLI mean to me. The team at Croyde are selfless, incredibly brave and highly skilled. Last summer, they put their lives on the line for me and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here today. 

My friends Ingrid, Lisa and I decided to fundraise for the team, cycling over 250 miles to Devon from our homes in London.’

Mary and her friends raised over £4,000 to show their gratitude.

Sean Deasy and Freddie Hedger at Croyde Beach

Photo: RNLI/Jade Dyer

Sean Deasy and Freddie Hedger at Croyde Beach

‘The rescue was very unorthodox'

One year on, Freddie Hedger (right) has received the Alison Saunders Lifeguarding Award for the most meritorious rescue by RNLI lifeguards in 2016.

Freddie insisted that Sean receive the award with him, and wanted to acknowledge the teamwork behind him all the way: ‘I feel very privileged to be recognised and given the award, but I don’t think I’d have been able to do it without the rest of the team there on the day.

‘It was only with Sean’s perseverance and assistance with the RWC that I was able to reach the safety of the shore.’ Sean said: ‘The rescue was very unorthodox so took a lot of improvisation using the skills we’d gained through our RNLI training. I think I was fortunate to have Freddie with me as he has incredible water skills and was able to think on his feet to save Mary’s life.’

Freddie added: ‘We know from other rescues that it doesn’t always go to plan so the ability to adapt and persevere in the face of danger is vital. Since it happened we have questioned if we could have done anything differently and reflected on what lessons it has taught us, so this year we have adapted our training techniques for certain conditions as necessary.’

Learn more about the vital work our lifeguards do and how they train, and find your nearest lifeguarded beach.