Northern Beaches lifeguard Matthew Willows has been awarded the nation’s fourth highest national Bravery Recommendation in the March 2018 Australian Bravery Awards.
Matthew received the Commendation for Brave Conduct following his heroic attempt to save the life of a fisherman near South Curl Curl in November 2015.
Just 21 at the time, Matthew radioed colleagues for backup before plunging into huge swells to assist a 59-year-old man who had been spotted floating face down after being swept off rocks.
Unassisted, Matthew managed to swim the unconscious man 150 metres towards the shore before a fellow lifeguard on a rescue board arrived to help transport the man to the beach.
Despite the efforts of Matthew and his team, as well as ambulance paramedics, the fisherman did not survive.
Matthew tells us more.
What inspired you to become a lifeguard and how long had you been doing it before this event?
I’ve been swimming, surfing and diving as long as I can remember and grew up with a strong beach/ocean influence. I was a nipper with Manly SLSC and learnt the skills that are specific to being a beach lifeguard from my day-to-day activities.
I was studying at university but my passion to travel, be by the ocean and be a positive influence to the community took over and I decided to put my surf skills and knowledge to use. I haven’t looked back since. I had only completed one seven-month season and a three-month summer role as a professional lifeguard prior to the incident occurring.
Tell us about the swell conditions on the day?
The conditions on the day weren't appealing at all. Curl Curl Beach was closed with the conditions too big and messy for surfing and very unsafe for rock fishing. The swell was overhead, so at least six-foot, and only increased by strong winds. I think most northern beaches would have been closed due to dangerous conditions that day.
What aspects of your training took over during the rescue?
My initial thought when I first arrived on scene was “I’m the lifeguard on duty, this is my responsibility, this is my job and what I’m here to do”. I back myself as a strong swimmer so being confident in my own abilities definitely helped along with the years of training as an ex-SLSC competitor. Doing my SRC training and Bronze Medallion at a young age and then furthering my qualifications as a professional lifeguard just backed my instincts.
What actions should people take if they witness someone being swept off rocks and out to sea?
If people witness a similar incident they should do exactly what a bystander did that day and instantly notify an on-duty lifeguard. I was notified by a coastal beach walker who ran straight to the lifeguard room at South Curl Curl. If they’re on duty, Northern Beaches Lifeguards will have the quickest response time as jet skis and rescue equipment are readily available. If lifeguards aren’t on duty, call 000.
Has this incident changed your perspective on helping people?
This incident hasn’t changed my perspective on helping the community. I love what I do and I’m stoked that I can work on some of the world’s most amazing beaches while helping the community. Unfortunately someone passed away and it’s not something I’d want to experience again but it’s what I’m trained in and good at. The experience, while not being a positive one, helped me with my confidence in being able to perform in a highly stressful situation. Keeping level-headed and calm as a lifeguard is crucial.