A Manly Beach swimmer who was rescued from near certain death in rough surf was reunited with his rescuer – a 14 year old surfer from Allambie – yesterday morning.
Sam Gilchrist is an experienced ocean swimmer, but sometimes even the best swimmers can get into trouble in an unpredictable sea.
That’s what happened to Sam at just after 7am on Sunday, 22 October. It was an overcast morning and the seas were rough, but he and five mates who swim every weekend, decided it would still be worth a dip. “We were about 80 metres out from the beach when three big waves hit, back-to-back-to-back”, says Sam. “I went under each time and swallowed a lot of saltwater.
“At that stage, my body just started saying ‘Get me out of here’. I was exhausted and started yelling that I was in trouble.”
“He didn’t hesitate”
Luckily, 14-year-old Manly lifesaver Ashton Davies was paddling on a board nearby next to his mate Max Devenny (both Year 8 students at Oxford Falls Grammar.) He heard Sam’s call for help and as he’d been trained, went to his aid.
“He didn’t hesitate,” said Sam. “He came straight over and I remember him saying, “Don’t worry Sir, we’ll get you to the beach.
“By this time I was utterly gassed. Big messy waves were going sideways, dumping on each other. I was struggling to get on the board… it was only a soft foamy, not a proper rescue board. Ashton ended up sliding off and into the water to push me up and after a few attempts, he got me to a point where I was able to just flop onto his board.”
Ashton is an amazingly humble young man. A junior lifesaver with Manly LSC and already doing patrols, he’s about to do his SRC (Surf Rescue Certificate)… though it seems he already has the necessary credentials.
“I just knew I had to keep him calm. I kept saying ‘You’ll be okay Sir… just stay calm’. My mate Max was right near us too, so I knew between us we’d be able to get him in. And luckily my mum was on the beach and I was able to call out to her as I brought him in and point to him on my board, so she knew what was going on. She ran up the beach to the lifeguards on patrol and they were all waiting for us as we caught a wave in.”
“I was slipping in and out of consciousness with my body just fighting for oxygen.”
Sam says he was really out of it during Ashton’s heroics. “I was slipping in and out of consciousness with my body just fighting for oxygen,” says Sam. “The lactic acid had built up and was causing fatigue and pain. By the time we got to the beach, I was hyperventilating and water was spilling out my mouth and nose… even my ears I think.”
Ashton’s mum Georgina – a surf club member herself – was there to help the lifeguards just as Sam’s body rolled off Ashton’s board and into the shallows.
“Three of us looped our arms under Sam’s, lifted him out of the water and carried him up the beach. Fearing he might have suffered a heart attack, I was asking him if his chest hurt, but thankfully he was able to tell us that wasn’t an issue. We put him in the recovery position and the lifeguards gave him oxygen. Somebody had called for an ambulance and within 10 minutes or so, the paramedics had arrived and taken over.”
Sam was rushed to Northern Beaches Hospital’s emergency department and admitted as a Category 1 patient – meaning he was critical and required immediate attention. The amount of saltwater he’d swallowed and inhaled didn’t agree with Sam’s kidneys, but he was actually very lucky. The risk of acute renal failure following even brief sea water immersion is a serious one.
Sam’s wife, Hiranthi, got a call from the ambulance station while Sam was en route to hospital. “They were so lovely,” said Hiranthi. “I spoke to a lady named Molly who very calmly told me that they had Sam with them and were taking care of him and that he was safely out of danger.”
Sam was kept under observation in hospital for two and a half days, before doctors agreed his kidneys were functioning normally and he was allowed to go home. His wife and two beautiful daughters, aged 8 and 12, were thrilled to have him back.
Sam was 47 when the accident occurred… a week later on October 29, he turned 48.
A Birthday he may not have seen
“I’m so happy I survived to celebrate this birthday with my family,” says Sam. “If it wasn’t for Ashton and the backup provided by Max, I honestly may not have done so. I don’t think I could have lasted another minute before Ashton arrived on his board.”
Sam said that it was important to him to find out who his rescuer was and he tried several lines of inquiry before he reached out directly to Manly Observer.
“All I could remember was that this slightly built, brown haired guy who I thought was in his mid-20s, had saved me and I was desperate to say thank you. It’s so good that someone from the club knew the story and identified Ashton as the hero. I couldn’t believe he was only 14… and only just 14 at that. His birthday was in September!”
Manly Observer was present when Sam and Ashton came face to face again for the first time since the rescue. The look on both their faces as they hugged each other was priceless. Sam gave Ashton a card saying thanks, but as Hiranthi said, “What do you write on a card like that? All we could say was thank you for saving Sam’s life.”
And while this was Ashton’s first confirmed lifesaving rescue, it turns out it he’d been in a similar situation before. Not long ago he was participating in a board race when one of his fellow club mates got knocked off by a wave and the board then proceeded to hit him in the head. Ashton was running fifth in the race at the time and only needed a good wave to surge towards the lead. But as soon as he saw his mate was in trouble, he abandoned the race and helped his friend back onto his board and into the beach.
Ashton’s Dad Nathan says helping is part of the culture of the Manly Life Saving Club.
“Manly LSC really is a community of people whose philosophy is, ‘We’re here to help’, says Nathan. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s chipping in to organise someone’s birthday party or saving a life, giving help is what we’re about.”
“I’m really proud of Ashton of course,” says Nathan. “He’s such a calm soul – always has been. But his actions that day are proof that the system works. I’m just thrilled that all the work, all the early mornings and all the training have paid off and literally changed someone’s life. That’s very special.”
It turns out that surf lifesaving is in Ashton’s blood. His aunt Melinda (Pelly) is a three-time Australian Life Saving Champion, current Club Captain and a Life Member of Manly LSC.
Mel is Georgina’s sister and was there for Sam and Ashton’s reunion. “The whole family is proud of him,” she said. “He’s still got bruises from the rescue where poor Sam was kicking out, trying to get on the board. But it’s what he’s been trained for all his life. I remember paddling Ashton out the back on my board when he was just 3 years old!”
“It does feel really good to save someone’s life,” said Ashton. “Seriously, the ocean was so messy that day. The Lifeguards had just closed the beach. I think Sam got caught in a bit of a rip before being dumped by some big waves. He just kept getting smashed until his body was about ready to give up. It’s so great to see him and his family here today and him looking so healthy.”
Georgina echoed that sentiment, saying: “It’s just wonderful… Sam looks so much more alive today than the last time we saw him. I’m so totally proud of Ashton.”
Ashton’s been a member of Manly LSC since he was 5 and has been through the Nippers program. At 14, he’s now looking to get his Bronze Medallion and undergo IRB training (Inflatable Rescue Boat). And Sam? Well, it took him a week after getting out of hospital to fully recover and he hasn’t been back in the surf since.
“It’s not that I’m scared of the water now… I’ll definitely start swimming again soon. But I had an important birthday to celebrate last weekend. It feels very special just to be here today and to reconnect with Ashton.”