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In a flash: Caught in a rip current

When a family of three are caught out by a rip current, quick-thinking lifeguards rush to the rescue.

The beach at Portrush, with a calm, blue sea, a stretch of golden sand, and backed by white cliffs

Photo: Shutterstock

The glorious beach at Portrush, Co Antrim, on a calmer day

During the summer holidays, Andrew Todd and two of his children, Issy and Zack, visited Whiterocks Beach in Portrush, along with some family friends. It was sunny and warm – the perfect weather for enjoying the coast. 

‘When we arrived, we saw the swell was immense,’ describes Andrew. The water was rough that day, with more than 2m-high surf and powerful waves. Swimmers would need to be careful. But Andrew, who sea kayaks around the north and west coast of Ireland, is no stranger to water safety.

‘I have a lifelong respect of the water and I’m very aware of the dangers,’ he says. ‘When my children came along, I was determined to instil in them the same respect, and an understanding of the power and wonder of the ocean. I taught them to swim in the sea, how to use the currents and what to do if they’re ever in a rip.’

‘I realised we had suddenly got deeper’

Before everyone headed into the sea, Andrew talked about the RNLI’s red and yellow flags and pointed out a rip current to the left of them. ‘There was a very strong flow of water running along the beach feeding the rip current,’ says Andrew. ‘We were very clear on staying between the flags for our whole session.’ 

Carefully choosing a safe spot, Andrew and his family made their way into the water, jumping the waves, paddling and swimming. 

The group had agreed on a time to get out of the sea and head back to their towels. ‘It was only in the last few minutes that I realised we had suddenly got deeper than I was comfortable with,’ says Andrew. The family had slipped past the flags, out of the red and yellow swim zone. 

A red and yellow flag on the beach, with lots of blue sky

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Red and yellow flags show the safest place to swim and bodyboard

‘We started to swim back to shore,’ he says. ‘My 18-year-old daughter, Issy, was making good progress but my youngest, Zack (13), didn’t have the strength. I stayed with him to encourage him on.’

Issy looked round to check on her dad and brother. ‘She realised we weren’t making it in and stopped to call back to us,’ says Andrew. ‘She was quickly carried back out, losing the ground she had made.’

The three of them had been caught by a rip current.

‘We saw another rip form’

Portrush Senior Lifeguard Adam King

Photo: RNLI

Senior Lifeguard Adam King

Just minutes earlier, Senior Lifeguard Adam King and Lifeguard Luke McAvoy had rescued two people from a rip current further up the beach. Once the swimmers were safely back on land, the lifeguards moved the red and yellow flags to mark out the new swim zone, away from where the rip current had formed. 

Lifeguard Ellen Knox, who was also on duty that day, got on the public address system. Her voice sounded over the loudspeakers to tell beachgoers that the swim zone had changed, and to warn them about the strong rip currents. 

‘We headed up to the lifeguard hut to get changed and dried while Ellen took over at the water’s edge,’ remembers Adam. Even as they were getting into dry clothes, Adam kept a very close eye on the sea. He says: ‘While we were in the hut, we saw another rip form – close to the new location of our red and yellow flags.’ 

Suddenly, their radio crackled into life. It was Ellen.

Portrush Lifeguard Ellen Knox

Photo: Stephen Hamilton Photography

Lifeguard Ellen Knox

‘I knew I needed to stay calm’

‘I’d noticed three swimmers beginning to drift very quickly in a flash rip current that had formed,’ says Ellen. Flash rips can be unpredictable, appearing quickly and without warning, as the name suggests. 

After radioing the base, Ellen grabbed her rescue board and ran into the water. She needed to reach the swimmers as quickly, and safely, as possible.

‘With the conditions that day, I felt nervous. The waves and rip currents were the biggest and strongest I had seen all season. I knew it was going to be difficult to get out to the casualties and I was worried I may lose sight of them over the waves,’ says Ellen. ‘I knew I needed to stay calm and avoid getting caught out on my rescue board by larger sets of waves.’

As Ellen skilfully made her way through the choppy surf to reach Andrew and his children, Adam and Luke launched the rescue watercraft (RWC). ‘As there was a lot of white water and large waves, it was important for me to concentrate on the task at hand,’ says Adam. ‘I couldn’t risk being caught out by a large set of waves and losing the RWC. The shallow water by the shore was busy with kids playing, and the RWC would have been washed in their direction. I always had that in my head.’ 

Ellen adds: ‘I felt a lot of pressure knowing I was heading out to three swimmers with only one rescue board, but Adam and Luke were extremely quick to respond with back-up.’

A close-up photo of a lifeguard riding a rescue watercraft through the waves. They are wearing a red and yellow wetsuit and a white helmet.

Photo: Mike Lavis

Trained and ready to rescue

‘I just held him close’

While the lifeguards fought through the rough surf, Andrew concentrated on keeping his family calm. ‘The first lifeguard was in the water, on her board, paddling it towards Issy. I was still with Zack. I told him to stop swimming and just held him close, to avoid getting separated and to conserve energy,’ he says.

‘We were calling to Issy to reassure her all was well, and she stayed calm too.’ 

Ellen reached Issy first. ‘I reassured her, and got her to hold onto my rescue board to help her stay afloat,’ says Ellen. Just as she was powering through the waves to reach Andrew and Zack, the rescue watercraft arrived. 

Andrew says: ‘Zack and I got on the sled and we were back on shore seconds later. He thought the ride was great!’ 

A lifeguard on a rescue watercraft in choppy surf

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Equipped with a rescue watercraft, highly trained lifeguards can handle big surf

Once Andrew and Zack were safely ashore, Luke and Adam returned for Issy, who was still holding onto Ellen’s rescue board and floating in the water. Adam says: ‘Once I’d picked the daughter up, Ellen made her way back to the beach and met us on the water’s edge. We chatted with the group and made sure they were all OK.’

‘We gave them advice and told them to go to A&E if they felt unwell later in the day,’ adds Ellen. Even after people are rescued, there can be further complications if water has entered their lungs. Thankfully, the group were fit and well.

‘We’re immensely grateful’

After the rescue, Andrew had a chat with Issy and Zack. ‘I reassured them that these things happen, and it was no one’s fault – we just let our guard down for a moment,’ he says. ‘We were all back in the water the next day to make sure there would be no long-lasting anxiousness or worries.

'We’re all immensely grateful for the speed and confidence the RNLI lifeguards showed that day. We didn’t acknowledge it enough at the time – I think we may have been in shock. But Zack and I dropped a thank you card in the next day.’

Ellen says: ‘I’m so glad we were able to help. It was all thanks to the high level of training and equipment we are provided with – as well as quick and effective decision-making from our Senior Lifeguard Adam.’

Stay safe: Beach tips

If you're heading to the seaside, here are five top tips to help you and your family stay safe:

1. Float to Live

If you find yourself struggling in the water, or if you fall in unexpectedly, Float to Live. Lean back and use your arms and legs to help you float. Wait until you can control your breathing, then call for help or swim to safety.

2. Choose a lifeguarded beach

Visiting a lifeguarded beach gives you and your family the protection of highly trained lifeguards like Ellen and Adam. They can see the dangers develop, prevent accidents before they happen and respond instantly if anyone gets into difficulty. 

Two RNLI lifeguards hammer signage into the sand

Photo: Ben Lamming

There for you with safety advice

3. Know the risks and what to do

Being aware of the dangers – from rip currents to tides, cold water shock to waves – and how to minimise them will help you stay safe.

4. Dial 999 or 112 in an emergency

When you go to the beach, always carry a means of calling for help. If you get into trouble, or spot someone else in difficulty, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard

5. Know your flags

If you visit a lifeguarded beach, there will be flags to show you where it’s safe to swim. If you’re planning to swim or bodyboard, stay between the red and yellow flags.

It’s your support that powers lifeguards like Ellen, Luke and Adam to the rescue. Your generosity gives them the training, kit, and equipment they need to save lives. Thank you.