Polar plunge rescue memories

Thousands will head to St Clair Beach in Dunedin tomorrow for the annual midwinter swim. Ian Stuart, a former Otago Daily Times reporter and a former member of the St Clair Surf Lifesaving Club, remembers a dramatic rescue after the 1978 event.

At 85, former St Clair lifeguard Val Bunyan, is in no hurry to rush into the ocean and celebrate the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

But every time she hears of the annual polar plunge at Dunedin's St Clair Beach, she feels a quiet but deep and satisfying sense of motherly pride.

Thirty-six years ago, on June 25, 1978, her son Lance, then 20, became the hero of the St Clair Surf Lifesaving Club's annual polar plunge when he saved a young man from drowning.

It was a dramatic, close-call rescue in a boisterous and powerful surf, which involved Mr Bunyan, the surf jet rescue boat, Europa Jet Rescue II, a lifeguard on a rescue ski and another lifeguard with a rescue tube. Mr Bunyan was surfing at the western end of the beach, near the salt water pool, after nearly 900 people had braved the chilly St Clair waters for the polar plunge. Most went in up to their waists and quickly dipped under the water before the rush back to the beach for a towel, a hot drink and warm clothes.

However, about 20 minutes after the last participant was drying off, the alarm went up when three men entered the water and almost immediately got into trouble in a rip. Two struggled back to the beach, but the third, who was wearing jeans, was caught in a rip and swept towards the salt water pool and out to sea.

Lifeguards rushed to the beach where they could hear the panic-stricken man yelling for help, but could not see him in the 3m-4m messy surf and boiling white water.

Mr Bunyan, who now lives in Australia, heard the man's frantic calls for help from the shore after riding a wave in, and took his board back into the boiling surf on a rescue mission.

By this stage, the man had been spotted, albeit briefly, from the shore. The jet rescue boat was having some maintenance done but was hurriedly prepared and launched. St Clair lifeguard Ian Stuart (the author) stripped to a pair of togs and paddled out on a rescue ski. All the rescuers had trouble seeing the distressed man because of the boiling surf.

The man was also disappearing under the water as he battled the surf and was getting weaker and weaker. When the man was spotted again, another St Clair lifeguard, Stuart McLauchlan ran over the rocks at the hot salt pool with a rescue tube, dived into the heaving surf and swam about 40m to Mr Bunyan and the distressed man, who by then was struggling to stay afloat.

''He was a very lucky man,'' Mr McLauchlan said.

''He would not have lasted another three or four minutes.''

In the Otago Daily Times story on the polar plunge the next day, Mr McLauchlan said: ''He was pretty crook. He was yelling for help and trying to get his jeans off. I had to lift his arms up to get the tube on. That's how tired he was.''

The dramatic rescue earned Mr Bunyan a Royal Humane Society Bronze medal for the ''courage and humanity'' he displayed.

Mrs Bunyan, who now lives in Ohope, near Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty, said every time she heard of the St Clair polar plunge, she felt a great sense of pride that her son had saved someone's life.

Mrs Bunyan (nee Brown) joined the ladies division of the St Clair Surf Lifesaving Club in 1946. She moved to Whakatane in 1949, met David Bunyan, whom she later married, and spent most of her adult life in the Bay of Plenty. Son Lance often went to Dunedin and other surfing spots around the country.

''He spent a lot of time in Dunedin, a lot of time in Taranaki, all the good surf spots.''

She worried that he spent too much time surfing but when she and her husband learnt of his courageous rescue they were ''very proud of him, of course I was. I was pleased something good came out of surfing''.

The jet rescue boat, which was involved in many search and rescues at St Clair, St Kilda and around the Otago Peninsula, was not launched for the polar plunge, because it was not thought it would be needed with swimmers barely putting their toes in the cold water, jet-boat captain Terry Low said.

''We had the driveshaft off to replace a bearing, but when the alarm went up, myself and Allan McNaughton raced into the shed to put wetsuits on. By the time we got back, Graeme Winter [mechanic] had put two of the eight bolts on the driveshaft back and was taking the boat to the water's edge.

''When we launched, we had to scoot along the shallows just off the beach to get to the salt pool and then head out to sea, hoping we would see the man in trouble.

''The sea was huge and the waves were very, very powerful. We made two runs out and back in looking for the man, but after the second run we were told he had been found and was being brought ashore.

''He would have to be one of the luckiest people around. He was going under, probably for the last time,'' Mr Low said. The jet-boat search for the man was perilous.

''We were travelling through seaweed very close to the hot salt water pool rocks,'' he said.

''Because of the broken white water, that bloke had to be going under every wave. Every 30 seconds he was under white water with every wave.''

He said had they found the swimmer, Mr McNaughton would have dived in to support him with a rescue tube until further help arrived.

Mrs Bunyan still swims almost every day at the beach in summer and if there was a midwinter swim at Whakatane, she would consider going back into the water there.

''I have given up swimming for the winter but I go to the beach every day. If I don't go to the beach every day I feel I have missed out on something.''

St Clair Beach is not on the agenda for another chilly dip.

''No, it's too cold,'' she said.

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