‘6ft waves just pin you down’: Lifeguards team up to save surfer

A surfer’s leash snaps in a powerful rip current. Discover how Harlyn Bay and Trevone Beach RNLI lifeguards battled crashing waves and heavy surf to reach him in this adrenaline-pumping rescue story. 

An RNLI lifeguard surfs at Porthtowan Beach in Cornwall

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

It was deceptively quiet on the sheltered beach of Harlyn Bay on 29 June 2022. But at neighbouring Trevone Beach, lifeguards knew that the conditions in their bay – winds gusting up to 24mph and rip currents – called for high alert.

 

Lifeguard Alfie Yates was keeping watch on Trevone Beach, making sure people didn’t get too close to the risk spots in its waters. ‘I was well aware of how strong the rip current was. It’s a nightmare to get stuck in, as there were 6ft waves breaking onto the rip and it just pins you down if you’re not experienced enough to paddle out of it,’ he says. Then, he spotted surfer Ben Carden.

‘In what felt like seconds, the surfer got dragged from one side of the beach to the other.’  

 
Two lifeguards at Trevone Beach sit on duty, keeping watch over people playing in the sea

Photo: @garethbphotograph

Trevone Beach is less sheltered than neighbouring Harlyn Bay beach

Trying to stay afloat

Despite paddling frantically, Ben's attempts to get out of the rip weren’t working. The powerful waves caused his leash to snap, and without his board to keep afloat he was especially vulnerable. Other swimmers at Trevone could be in similar danger, and Alfie radioed neighbouring Harlyn lifeguards for backup, asking them to launch their inshore rescue boat (IRB) while he entered the water with his trusty rescue board.

An RNLI lifeguard runs into the sea with their yellow and blue rescue board

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Every second counts: Alfie rushes into the sea with his rescue board

‘I used the rip to get out to the casualty as quickly as possible and approached him as calmly as I could, although I knew he was in a tough situation,’ Alfie remembers.

Once he reached Ben, who was exhausted, Alfie helped him to grab hold of his board. But no matter how hard they paddled, they couldn’t escape the rip current. Alfie tried putting Ben on the board, but the breaking waves were so big, they kept knocking him off. And even worse, the pair were getting pushed closer and closer to the rocks. 

Neighbourly back up

Lifeguard Seb Scott-Bray was patrolling the water’s edge at the calm Harlyn Beach when he received Alfie’s call. Aware that the surf was quite big at Trevone, he quickly got to the helm of the IRB and, alongside lifeguard Ollie Lewis, began the 2km boat journey.

 ‘The onshore wind meant it was quite choppy and along with the swell, it was quite a bumpy ride.’ Seb remembers. They drove as fast as they could.

Perranporth Beach lifeguards heading into the surf in their inshore rescue boat

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Lifeguards Seb Scott-Bray and Ollie Lewis power to the rescue in their inshore rescue boat

Back in Trevone’s waters, Alfie could see Ben was getting more distressed each time the waves pushed him off the board. Knowing the IRB would arrive eventually, he focused on fighting the surge and keeping them both out of harm’s way. ‘As we got only several metres from the rocks I thought: “This could go bad”’ Alfie says.

To Alfie’s relief, the boat arrived before they reached the rocks. But it wasn’t over yet.

Battling the sea

‘As we came into Trevone, it was clear the surf was quite big,’ Seb says. After a brief stop to assess conditions and plan ahead, the two Harlyn Bay lifeguards tried to get Ben into the IRB. ‘Ollie tried to do the pickup, but the added weight of the casualty was turning the boat broadside to the waves.’ 

Seb became concerned as a large set of waves approached. ‘I tried to give it a bit of throttle to straighten up the boat,’ he remembers. But to Seb’s horror, Ollie was dragged from the IRB by the waves. 

Two lifeguards on an inshore rescue boat at Harlyn Bay, Cornwall, heading out through surf with its bow high out of the water

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

‘My main concern was that the boat was going to get flipped by the approaching set of waves’

‘At this point, my main concern was that the boat was going to get flipped by the approaching set of waves, and that Ollie was in the water with a casualty and no rescue equipment,’ Seb says.

Seb managed to manoeuvre the IRB over the next set of waves. The other lifeguards would have to move quickly though – there was no guarantee he would be able to keep successfully steering the boat clear. Shouting over the roar of the ocean, Seb called to Alfie to help Ollie with the rescue board and secure Ben. 

‘After a couple of attempts, we managed to do the pickup,’ says Seb. Watch the moment they managed to collect Ben, and bring everyone safely back to shore, here:

Lucky to have lifesavers

‘Afterwards, I was just so full of adrenaline, I couldn’t sit still!’ Alfie says. ‘But I was pretty relieved the situation ended well, and Ben was safe.’ That same day, RNLI lifeguards in nearby Porthtowan had to carry out a rescue for a swimmer caught in a similar rip.

Despite being a visitor at Trevone, surfer Ben returned the next day to personally thank the lifeguards who saved him. 

If the lifeguards at Harlyn Bay hadn’t been able to help their neighbouring lifesavers, the situation could have become dire. Seb explains: ‘Tom, the senior lifeguard at Trevone, would have had to enter the water, leaving the beach unpatrolled. Given the conditions, it’s not unlikely that other bathers would have ended up in the same situation. As there were no other competent surfers in the water, and how exhausted Ben was, it’s certainly possible Ben would have drowned.’

Stay safe while surfing

Lifeguards Alfie and Seb have the following advice for surfers or bathers encountering rip currents:

  • Before you get in the water, ask lifeguards on the beach about the conditions – we’re more than happy to help!
  • Know your limits before going out in big surf, and understand which parts of the beach are particularly dangerous.
  • If you get caught in a rip current, stay calm and the lifeguards will get to you.
  • Always keep hold of a flotation device, such as a bodyboard, stand-up paddle board, or surfboard. Don’t ditch it to swim out of the rip. 
  • If possible, try to paddle across the rip parallel to the shore. If this doesn’t work, go with the current, concentrate on staying afloat and wave for help.

Your generosity fuels every rescue 

Our lifesavers won’t stand by while people are in danger. Not on our watch. That’s why we rely on your support. If you’re able, please consider donating to the RNLI to keep our lifeguards and crews saving lives at sea.

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