Hout Bay lifesaver Natan Brittz, who risked his life in an attempt to save a man at Llandudno, received a bravery award from Lifesaving Western Cape last month. The man was later found to have died much earlier.
The incident happened on December 7 last year. Natan, a third-year Actuarial science student at UCT, did everything he could to try to save him. He was spurred on by the fact that in the 45-year history of the Llandudno Surf Lifesaving Club, there had never been a drowning on duty, despite Llandudno Beach being one of the most dangerous in the country.
“Josh Lim, one of the Llandudno lifeguards on duty, was told by a local surfer that there was a body in the water. I could see by the look on Josh’s face that it was bad news. Lifeguard Steven Sparks went out on a rescue board followed by myself with a buoy and fins,” the 21-year-old former Camps Bay High School pupil said.
“On the way into the water, Josh communicated that the surfer has spotted an alleged dead body at the edge of the rocks on the far-right hand side of the bay, also known as ‘Gat’. Gat is the most dangerous place in the bay with massive waves braking against jagged rocks and many hidden rocks under the white water.”
Natan said he hoped the man was not dead, as he did not want to break the lifesaving club’s proud legacy of never having lost a life. He swam harder and dived deeper than he ever had before, and despite what looked like a wall of waves in front of him, he was at the backline before even realised it.
“Once behind the set, I looked around but with the rough water, I couldn’t spot anything. I swam to the surfers and they said they last spotted the body in the alcove of the rocks, at the edge of Gat. I knew this was bad news, and normally I wouldn’t go so close to these rocks, even on a good day. As I swam further out, the lifeguards back on the beach had sent Joshua Vaughn, along with other lifeguards on duty that day, onto the rocks with radios to watch and communicate the situation.”
Natan then spotted the “white back” of a man and swam over to investigate. He immediately turned him over and saw that he had foam coming from his mouth, his eyes were glossed over, his skin was blue, his stomach was bloated from the water.
“I thought he was dead, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I placed him on my shoulder and used my t-buoy as a floatation device to keep his head out of the water. I saw a massive set start approaching out of nowhere so I started paddling us out as fast as possible. Unfortunately, the wave broke before I could get us out, so I grabbed onto the man and braced for impact.
“It washed us considerably closer to the rocks, but I didn’t want to risk losing him so I started gunning out again. Another wave hit us and washed us less than five meters away from the rocks. At this point I saw the third wave of the set approaching and knew if I carried on holding on, I would be washed into the rocks myself. I let go of the man and swam and duck-dived under the biggest wave of the set. After this third and final wave of the set I quickly found the man again, put him into the rescue position and swam him out beyond the waves during the lull.”
At this point, Natan started swimming the victim across the bay, and he was soon joined by two surfers who offered to assist.
“Steven had initially gone out with a board and, had he gotten out, would have the made the rescue much faster and easier, due to the improved speed and buoyancy of the board. Unfortunately, due to the massive waves of the day (six to seven foot), there are few who could have got out on a board and after realising he wouldn’t get out, he grabbed fins and a t-buoy. He did this despite still wearing a short-sleeved wetsuit which provides very little protection against the frigid water while swimming.”
The severe seas meant that the rescue party were repeatedly hit by waves as they crossed the bay, with the surfers having to “duck-dive” under the waves.
“It was still slow going, even with the surfers, but shortly after we started crossing the bay, Steven joined the front of the line and started pulling the front surfer with the use of the t-buoy. This increased our speed considerably and it wasn’t long until we could come in. We managed to make it most of the way in without getting separated, but half-way through another big set rolled in and broke up the line.
“I clung onto the patient as much as possible, and unavoidably, we were taken by many waves on the way in. I used the waves as best I could to help get us closer to the shore, but it was not over yet, as there was one more particularly scary moment just before the end of the rescue. A dumper hit me and the patient and pushed us to the bottom of the water onto the sand bank, surrounding us with white water. The patient landed on top of me under the water and, because of the air bubbles, I was unable to move and was trapped under the man for what was probably five seconds but felt years longer. Shortly following that, it was shallow enough to stand again and the rest of the lifeguards came in with a board to transport the patient.”
The rescue team then decided to wait for the paramedics to arrive, who declared the man, who was also bleeding heavily from the face, dead at the scene.
It was only later that Natan was able to piece together what had happened. It appears as though the man had been on the edge of the rocks either the previous evening or in the early hours of December 7, and had been swept off by the high seas either at Llandudno or Logies Bay.
It is possible he hit his head on the way down, drowning and submerging him until later in that day, when the rescue took place. “My heart goes out to the family members of this man who left them well before his time. Although it was a deeply disturbing event, it has taught me a lot about what it means to be a lifeguard and what the real risks are when performing our day to day duties.”
Natan thanked his fellow lifeguards Josh Lim and Steven Sparks, as well as the surfers who had assisted him.
Recalling the incident, Steven said in the showers afterwards, he could not believe what had happened. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without all the team work,” he said.