Lifeguards who saved a badly injured surfer – who wrote “HELP” in the sand at an isolated beach on the West Auckland coastline – have won a top award.
New dad Ben Searancke was lucky to live when a surfing expedition seven days after the birth of his baby daughter went horribly wrong.
The Auckland man had ventured out on his surfboard at Karekare Beach on February 17, when the beach was deserted.
After losing his board while out in the large waves, he was dragged further along the coastline before managing to swim through the surf and make it to shore.
During his ordeal he suffered gashes to his legs on sharp rocks – some of which went through to the bone – and swallowed a large amount of water.
After a three-hour battle, he managed to make it to Mercer Bay further up the coast, where he tied a surfboard leash around a badly bleeding leg as an improvised tourniquet.
He then wrote “HELP” in large letters on the sandy beach, before passing out. He later admitted he thought he was going to die, but he was later spotted by two people who alerted emergency services.
The United North Piha Lifeguard Service and Piha Paid Lifeguard Service were among those who responded, with both being jointly awarded the Rescue of the Year award at Saturday night’s annual Surf Life Saving Northern Region’s Awards of Excellence ceremony.
“The lifeguards spotted the surfer, Ben Searancke, signalling them from the beach and determining he was in immediate danger, crafted a plan to make the rescue despite the large surf and steep beach,” the award’s citation read.
“Because the shorebreak waves were large, the rescue water craft was unable to be beached, so one crew member swam to the beach to apply emergency first aid, while the other manned the craft beyond the breakers.”
Searancke was later able to be rescued via the rescue craft and rushed to Auckland City Hospital, where he underwent surgery on his serious leg injuries.
After being discharged from hospital, Searancke told the Herald of his miracle survival, including revealing he had been inspired to write “HELP” on the sandy beach via Tom Hanks’ 2000 film Cast Away.
“Kiwis are Kiwis, I know that they might just walk past and I was desperate,” he said.
“If they just walked past I would be stuffed so I thought if I wrote HELP and they were looking at me, surely that’ll engage them enough to do something.”
He said of his earlier terrifying ordeal in the surf: “I had nothing. I was in the middle of the ocean. No beach in sight. No people in sight. Then getting pushed towards rocks with heavy water.
“A wave just grabbed me and threw me against the rocks and I covered my head and got scratches all over my body but I felt my leg get a really bad bang. I think eventually I managed to climb up and I looked down at my leg and my bone was showing on my right-hand side.”
He suffered more wounds before making it up some rocks and then to the sandy Mercer Bay beach.
Before breaking through the surf he feared he was going to die.
“I felt a bit dizzy, I was held down for long enough to start thinking ‘this is it, it’s definitely over’,” Searancke said.
“That time my brain was definitely going. I could see my daughter, I could see my missus and I was going ‘This is it’.”
Two Karekare locals – Vanessa Ingraham and Dace Kalnina – later spotted his appeal for help in the sand and immediately alerted rescue services.
Other finalists in the rescue of the year category were the Mangawhai Heads Volunteer Lifeguard Service for saving a boatie injured 3km offshore, and the Karekare Surf Life Saving Club for its rescue of four teenage girls, one of whom later died on the way to hospital.
SLSNR chief executive Matt Williams said the winning rescue showcased the professionalism of the two patrol captains who worked together to co-ordinate a complex rescue while also maintaining their existing operations on a busy beach day.
“But all three rescues were an excellent demonstration of the importance of having skilled lifeguards with the right equipment available to act quickly in complex and dangerous situations to save lives.”
During the 2020-21 surf lifesaving season, Surf Life Saving Northern Region lifeguards committed almost 66,000 volunteer hours to beach patrols.
They were involved in 148 rescues and 264 assists. They also performed 26,000 “safety interventions” involving more than 114,000 people.
Surf Life Saving Northern Region’s safety tips:
* Choose a patrolled beach and swim between the flags
* Ask a lifeguard for advice
* Don’t overestimate your ability
* Keep young children within arm’s reach at all times
* Never swim or surf alone
* Watch out for rip currents, they can carry you away from the shore
* When fishing from rocks, always wear a lifejacket
* If in doubt, stay out
* If you see someone in trouble, call 111 and ask for Police
* Be sun smart – slip, slop, slap, and wrap
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