Editorial: Unassuming heroes exemplify North spirit

By Mike Dinsdale

From left, Far North Rescue vice-president Tony Walker, his son Anthony, club captain Thom Anderson and his wife, lifeguard Kate Clarke. Photo/Mike Dinsdale
From left, Far North Rescue vice-president Tony Walker, his son Anthony, club captain Thom Anderson and his wife, lifeguard Kate Clarke. Photo/Mike Dinsdale

Far North Surf Rescue lifeguard Anthony Walker and Club Captain Thom Anderson are rightly being hailed as heroes.

Last Thursday evening, in fading light and with three-metre swell battering Tapotupotu Bay, the pair were involved in the rescue of two divers who had been stuck on rocks at the bottom of a cliff.

The divers, both from Kaitaia, had been there for about five hours and the crew from Far North Surf Rescue - which also included Mr Anderson's wife Kate Clarke and Anthony's dad Tony Walker - were the last chance of saving them.

Read more:
Northland heroes save divers' lives

The weather was atrocious, with high winds, sheeting rain, lightning and raging seas. It was so bad that the Northland Rescue Helicopter couldn't get to the men because of the risks in the foul conditions.

It was just too dangerous and things were looking decidedly grim for the two divers - until the crew from Far North Surf Rescue turned up.

And like many volunteers - without which communities like the Far North would not be able to operate - they got on with the job in hand.

The four of them had already driven the 125km trip from the club's Ahipara base to Tapotupotu Bay after getting their rescue gear and hooking up the Inflatable Rigid Boat (IRB) within about five minutes of taking the emergency call.

The four volunteers knew what to do - this is what they train for - and they had to do it quickly.

The IRB was launched from the bay with Mr Anderson the driver and Anthony Walker as the 'swimmer' who would go into the water first to get to the divers. Ms Clarke was carrying out the rescue logistics from the shore and Tony Walker coordinating things and on stand by.

The IRB got to about 100 metres away from the rocks and it was pretty clear that the only way to rescue them was jump in the water and swim to them.

Anthony Walker leapt in first - his main concern to get the first man out quickly and safely.

"I just had to get there and rescue the patient. We were their last hope really so we had to do it." he told The Northland Age.

The gut he was in was surging, with competing currents pulling him under and onto the rocks - but he used his training and courage to get the first diver back to the boat safely.

Mr Anderson then swapped over and jumped into the turbulent ocean to get the second diver.

Again, skill, bravery and determination got the man to the IRB and they got back to the shore, almost on darkness.

All four of them, along with the other selfless people involved, from the emergency services, DoC workers, Coastguard, Northland Emergency Rescue Helicopter, S&R, and everybody else - and again, many of them volunteers - saved those divers from almost certain death.

But none were more instrumental in saving the lives of those two foolhardy folk than Anthony Walker and Mr Anderson.

When The Northland Age caught up with the four of them at HQ on Friday they were proud of their efforts the night before, but fairly low key about it - maybe because they are well trained for when they are called on.

Our two young men - who really deserve any accolades they get, because what they did was bravery personified - downplayed their efforts, simply saying they were just doing their bit to help their community.

But Northland's Search and Rescue boss Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe knew what to say about the pair: "heroic".

The experienced S&R boss said conditions on Thursday were "as dangerous as it gets" and he should know, having being involved in many S&R operations.

"That was outstanding bravery. This is probably one of the most daring rescues I've been involved in," he said.

Tony Walker was in no doubt the two lifeguards' efforts had prevented a tragedy.

"We were the last line of defence really and I'm just so proud of the team. They did a fantastic job.

Far North Surf Rescue chairman Dave Ross said the crew put their lives on the line to save the two divers.

Mr Ross said lifeguards preferred not to dwell on what might have happened if the crew had not been there, but the two divers were in serious danger.

He said it went well as a rescue with the divers saved, but he questioned what would motivate people to go into the water for a dive in three-metre swells and the weather as foul as it was on Thursday night.

"It's happening too often though unfortunately. You just have to shake your head really ..."

Mr Metcalfe put it very accurately, describing them as "idiots who put the lives of others at great risk".

"I'm angry, I'm frustrated, but not surprised by the stupidity of people in Northland at times. It confounds me why anyone would be out there in those conditions. We knew for a week that this weather was coming. There were storm warnings," he said.

Our rescuers said the two divers were extremely grateful to them for saving the pair's lives - and so they should be.

Perhaps they could make a donation to club's coffers, as like every voluntary organisation, they rely on the generosity of the community - and this rescue was a supreme example of a community that cares, working together.

Or maybe the pair could go and give them a hand around the club's HQ.

It's right beside the Ahipara Fire Station, or even sign up to become a volunteer, and learn all the skills that it takes to put your own life at risk and take a leap into a swirling sea to rescue others in appalling conditions.

One thing they should not do though is go out into the ocean when the weather's that bad - because next time even the heroic volunteers from Far North Surf Rescue may not be able to save them.

- Far North Surf Rescue has been given a brand new a $25,000 IRB from BP. Mr Ross said they will receive the much-needed IRB soon and the club will have a welcome party for it at the HQ - a perfect chance for anybody who wants to help out to get involved.
The club can be contacted on 09-409 4800.

- Northland Age

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