9 December 2014

'It's all right buddy, I've got you'

You might not recognise Joby Wolfenden-Brown. But you may well have heard him.

When a young bodyboarder was rescued from a strong rip current off Crooklets Beach in Bude, Cornwall, the video of lifeguard Joby’s rescue went viral. Over the boy’s panicked cries for help comes a reassuring voice through the choppy waves: ‘It’s all right buddy, I’ve got you.’

The rescue footage became the third most viewed video on the RNLI’s YouTube channel. It stood out in a Summer where mass rescues from strong rips punctuated news headlines, due in part to dangerous currents forming after Winter storms battered and reshaped our beaches.

But what’s the story behind this rescue? What went wrong and how does trouble develop so quickly? We caught up with Joby to find out.

How far was the boy from the flags when you spotted him?

That’s the thing, it wasn’t that far – when we first moved down the beach to wave him back to the red and yellow flagged area, he wasn’t that far away. But then he just got caught up in the rip and drifted, really. That was my cue to grab the board and go. It took me maybe 30, 45 seconds to paddle out to him.

People really responded to the emotion of the boy’s cries for help – how does it feel going to rescue someone who’s so frightened?

Even if the person doesn’t realise they’re in danger, the lifeguards do, so we would always react in a similar way. But in a situation like this you’re just trying to talk to them, keep them calm.

He’d taken his leash off but stayed on the bodyboard for a bit. Then as I approached he jumped off into the water, and that’s when he got really scared and started screaming for help. When you’re caught in a rip it’s always best to hang onto your board – that’s what’s going to help you stay afloat.

The panicking boy clings to the lifeguard’s rescue board
The panicking boy clings to the lifeguard’s rescue board

What training comes into play in a rescue like this?

I’ve been part of Bude Surf Life Saving Club since I was about 8, so the paddling and board work is all pretty much second nature now. The rescue boards we’ve got are great – they’re so buoyant, you can have people hanging onto them and you won’t fall in very easily because it’s pretty hard to tip them. At the same time, they’re really fast.

How did it feel to see the footage go viral?

‘This was just one rescue. One day. One beach.’
Joby Wolfenden-Brown
RNLI Lifeguard

It feels weird really! We’re all doing our job and it just happened that I was the one with the camera on. This was my second rip rescue of the day, but the other guys had already brought in another six people.

It’s great that the family agreed to share their story to raise awareness of the dangers and the work lifeguards do. But what stands out for me is that this rescue wasn’t a one-off. Perhaps when people see the video they’ll think it’s one in a million, but this was just one rescue, one day, one beach.

The lifeguard team on the beaches at Bude rescues people from rips every day
The lifeguard team on the beaches at Bude rescues people from rips every day

Because lifeguards can spot hazards before they develop, the young lad wasn’t in serious danger at that point, he was just really panicked and tired. We don’t want to scare people, because the sea is there to be enjoyed, but rips do happen and their power shouldn’t be underestimated. The main thing is to choose a lifeguarded beach, and get some information on what to do if you get into difficulty.

Can you describe what it feels like to be in a rip?

Picture walking the wrong way on a really long treadmill, you’re trying to move against it and make progress. It’s like that. Don’t try and fight it or get back to flick the off switch, just step off the side of treadmill and you’re immediately out of the flow. So with a rip, swim or paddle parallel to the beach and you’ll eventually be free of its pull.

Were conditions any different this season?

The look of the beach had changed a lot from last year. We lost a lot of sand from the beaches here, which meant more underlying rocks were showing. They can be dangerous in themselves, but they also create new features for rip currents to form around. These are all factors lifeguard teams take into account when the beaches are assessed at the start of the season, and throughout the day’s patrol as we move the flags to show people the safe swim and surf areas.

How does lifeguarding fit into your life on and around the water?

This was my fourth year as a lifeguard, and I’m now in my second year studying Sports Science, so it’s a great uni job. I’ll definitely be back for the next couple of years. Most Summers I’m competing for my surf club at weekends, which includes everything from beach sprints to board work, and a really competitive game called flags! The whole club culture is about being part of a lifesaving community, building up your fitness and skills, and learning to respect the water as you enjoy it.

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