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‘It was like being in a washing machine’

Mawgan Porth lifeguards race to the rescue of a swimmer caught in a rip current.

Jon stands on Mawgan Porth Beach with his lifeguard rescuers
Survivor Jon returned to the beach to say thank you to ‘the heroes who saved my life’: Tom (still keeping a watchful eye on the water), Alex, Tori and Theresa

It was a sunny, warm day in June. Jon, a retired police officer from Yorkshire, was on holiday in Cornwall when he decided to visit Mawgan Porth. ‘I’ve been going to that beach since I was 5 years old, I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours in the water there,’ says Jon. ‘I know that it gets rips and I’ve seen people rescued – I know how dangerous it is.’ 

Jon made his way into the water between the red and yellow flags, cautiously paddling through the surf up to his waist. ‘I was enjoying it. And then suddenly it was like trying to walk up a water flume.’ 

He’d been caught by a rip current. ‘I immediately knew I was in trouble. As soon as I lifted one foot to make headway, it was taking me back.’ 

Jon knew the RNLI’s safety advice – he tried to float by leaning back, extending his arms and legs, resisting the urge to thrash around. But he was caught by another rip. Jon managed to glance back towards the shore and saw he’d been swept far out to sea. 

Lifeguards on the beach, looking out to sea

Photo: RNLI/Chris Speers 

The scene of the rescue, where a rip current nearly took Jon’s life

‘The swell was coming in. I had no land mass in sight, and I didn’t know which way I was facing. It was taking me under, I was rolling. I’d come back up, take a breath and then it would take me back under. That’s when I thought: “This is it”. I was trying to shout, trying to wave. I have never felt so small. I felt completely insignificant. 

‘There was a guy on a surfboard, I think he was struggling a bit himself. He saw me and raised the alarm.’ 

What Jon didn’t know then was that the lifeguards had already spotted him – and were on their way. 

‘I saw a lifeguard approaching me on a rescue board – I have never been more pleased to see anyone in my life. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought: “Thank God someone is here who knows what they’re doing.” Not long after, another lifeguard showed up.’

Lifeguards Alex and Tori had arrived on the scene. Alex tried to grab Jon’s hand and pull him onto his rescue board. But the swell was so strong, they kept getting separated. ‘It was like being in a washing machine,’ describes Jon. At one point, the current whipped one of the rescue boards away and the lifeguards and Jon held on to the remaining board. 

The rescue watercraft that rescued Jon
You fund lifesaving kit, like this rescue watercraft that brought Jon back to shore

Tori says: ‘With a big swell and a powerful rip pulling us out of our depth, trying to get Jon on the rescue board was very challenging. We were battling the powerful vortex for at least 20 minutes; the rip was raging. It was definitely the most physically demanding rescue I have ever been involved in.’ 

Knowing more help would soon arrive, Alex and Tori focused on reassuring Jon, motivating him to keep hanging on. Tori remembers: ‘We were saying: “You’re doing a great job. Just keep holding onto the handles of the rescue board.” We were never going to give up. That was just not an option for us. We were going to bring him back home to his family.’

Back on the beach, Lifeguards Theresa and Tom were quickly launching the rescue watercraft (RWC). ‘The conditions were so rough,' says Jon. 'It’s amazing Theresa was able to get that RWC out there to me – I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.’ 

After being in the water for so long, Jon was exhausted – this made it difficult for him to grab hold of the RWC. ‘I lost my grip on the first attempt and then it took some effort to get me into a position where I could drag myself onto the back of it. It was the lifeguards’ encouragement that gave me the strength to fight.’ 

Theresa powered them back to the shore, with Jon clinging to the sled on the back of the RWC. Jon says: ‘It was only when I heard the engine stop and I lowered my foot and touched something solid that I thought: “Oh thank God”. 

The lifeguards who saved Jon's life stand on the sand, smiling
The Mawgan Porth lifeguards who saved Jon's life

‘There aren’t a lot of words you can say in a situation where people have literally put their lives on the line for yours. I hope they know how much I appreciate what they did. I’ve never seen such determined and selfless dedication.’ 

He followed our Float to Live advice

‘Jon did an amazing job at remaining calm and listening to us. He didn’t try to fight the ocean, he didn’t panic. He followed our Float to Live advice. He preserved his energy and did such a phenomenal job. I think that is one of the main reasons why he is still here today. 

‘When we all reached the beach safely, I felt relief and so much adrenaline! Plus absolute satisfaction and pure happiness.’

Award-winning lifeguards

For their courage, selflessness, determination and surf skills in challenging conditions, Tori and Alex will be awarded a Bronze Medal for Gallantry, and Theresa will receive a framed Letter of Thanks for her fortitude and skill. They will be presented with their awards later this year. 

 RNLI Area Lifesaving Manager, Dickon Berriman, says: ‘This rescue took immense skill, determination and fitness. Tori and Alex willingly placed themselves in harm’s way to rescue a stranger. Had they not acted as they did, Jon would almost certainly have drowned. Theresa was absolutely instrumental in securing a safe and successful outcome for Jon and her colleagues, her skill, surf sense and her intuitive actions by launching the rescue watercraft saved a life.’

Since the rescue, Jon has chosen to help the RNLI by sharing his story, demonstrating the importance of our lifesaving work and safety advice. If our charity has benefited you or your loved ones, please help us save lives by sharing your story.