07 August 2018
It’s a moment seared forever into the mind of Megan Davis - her father Alan, breathless and exhausted, telling her to let go because he couldn’t keep afloat any longer.
The next moment was equally memorable. Over the breaking waves and swirling rip near Tay St in Mount Maunganui popped lifeguard William Dansereau on a rescue board. He urged Megan to swim in, then picked up her father, who was by then face down and unresponsive in the water.
“I have the best and worst memories from that day,” Megan explains. “A few seconds longer and I would’ve lost my dad - I could see the panic and stress in his face. Then it was like a superhero appearing - I was so relieved when Will reached us and he was so calming, reassuring us that everything was going to be okay. Lifeguards saved our lives that day and there will never be enough gratitude in the world for what they did.”
That day - February 7, 2016 - was a busy one for members of the Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service. It was a hot, sunny Sunday with a decent swell running and crowds were out in force, stretched along the 3km coastline the club patrols. Senior lifeguards were edgy, especially with the tide turning just after midday.
Englishwoman Megan, then living and working in Auckland, had fallen in love with the golden Bay of Plenty beaches on her first trip there and was eager to show them off to her visiting parents. A quick dip was planned, then a late lunch in town.
They headed across the road from where they were staying, midway between Tay St and Sutherland Ave, and picked a spot with relatively few swimmers. Megan’s mum Debbie wasn’t comfortable; the turning tide had added chop and currents to the waves. She got out quickly, then watched helpless as the drama unfolded in front of her.
“I looked back at Mum and realised how far out we were, so I said to Dad ‘we need to swim back in really fast’, and I turned and started swimming,” Megan recounts, as she realised her and Alan had strayed into a rip. "I somehow managed to get back to a safe place where I could touch the sand but when I turned around, I saw Dad was really, really struggling, panicking and getting sucked under the water. I immediately swam back out as there was no way I was leaving him on his own.”
Desperately trying to stay calm, she waved for help then set about trying to reassure her father and stop him swallowing so much water. Seconds seemed like hours; the safety of the beach as distant as another realm.
Will Dansereau, meanwhile, was scanning the water from the passenger seat of the surf club’s all-terrain vehicle heading along the beach. He’d arrived early in the season from his native Canada, keen to train with the club’s surf sports programme and learn how to save lives in the ocean.
Driving that day was Mount local and experienced lifeguard Marty Wouters but the good-natured banter between the pair was abruptly cut short.
“We were on our way back from Tay St when I saw Meg and Alan in trouble,” Will says. “They were displaying all the signs of distressed swimmers that I’d been taught in my lifeguard exam and it was obvious they were in a heavy rip.”
He leaped straight into action. While his more experienced clubmate radioed for help, set up first aid equipment and took station on the beach, Will grabbed the rescue board and paddled straight out to the struggling pair. He could immediately see that Alan was worse off, swept further and further out and partially submerged, so told Megan to start swimming back in while he picked up her father and laid him on top of the board.
“He was really tired and just had no strength whatsoever. We picked Megan up on the way back in and keeping them both on the board was particularly tricky, so I had to go carefully, but we eventually made it back to shore.”
The two lifeguards got Alan back onto dry sand and started giving him oxygen, setting up a defibrillator in case he went into cardiac arrest, as two more lifeguards - Kent Jarman and Julian Lalanne - arrived by IRB to help.
An ambulance and paramedics were soon on the scene and took over, although Alan’s ordeal wasn’t over yet; he suffered a heart attack in hospital that night, likely brought on by the stress of the day. The day wasn’t over on the beach, either; lifeguards Jarman and Lalanne made two more rescues of swimmers on their way back to the club in the IRB.
Once Alan had been discharged from hospital, the Davis family ventured back down to the Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service to thank their rescuers profusely.
Alan sent Will a card which read: “We can’t thank you enough for all you did for us in rescuing me and my daughter. You will be long remembered and regarded with much affection by us all. Thank you for my life.” It’s a card that Will, now back in Canada, treasures; he thinks about that rescue most days and stays in contact with the family.
Alan and Debbie returned to Mount Maunganui in January this year too, popping in to the surf club to catch up with their new friends.
Megan, meanwhile, moved back to Fareham - her hometown in the United Kingdom - in June, after nearly four years in New Zealand. She’s now studying to be a paramedic, a direct result of her brush with fate that February afternoon.
“It’s all down to the lifeguards and the paramedic team in Tauranga - they all gave me the inspiration!” she says.
When she qualifies, she hopes to return to New Zealand, where she’s kept in touch with the Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service via Facebook and has noted fundraising efforts for the club’s new building, which is currently under construction.
“My parents wanted to give ALL their money to the Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service - you just can’t put a price on a life of a loved one. We are in awe of the phenomenal volunteer lifeguards - they are incredible people who do incredible things and I’d love to see more people donate, so they can keep saving lives. I’ve been back to the Mount four or five times since the incident and every time, I return to where it happened, taking a quiet 10 minutes to sit and reminisce on how lucky we were to be saved by such legends.”