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‘I didn’t have time to think. I just went,’ says UK tourist who saved the lives of two people in Cape Town

Toby Finneran jumped into action to save the lives of two people, one in water, another on land. Photo: Toby Finneran

Toby Finneran jumped into action to save the lives of two people, one in water, another on land. Photo: Toby Finneran

Published May 9, 2023


Cape Town - A UK tourist took a walk along the Sea Point promenade in Cape Town on Sunday, not knowing minutes later he would be saving the lives of two people.

Toby Finneran, 31, from Farnham in Surrey, has been in South Africa for three weeks.

He loves Cape Town and for the past five years has made annual trips to the city.

Speaking to IOL, Finneran said he took a walk along the promenade from Saunders Rock above Queens Beach because the Cape weather was showing off its beauty.

The rocks on Queens Beach. Photo: Toby Finneran

“As I was walking back, I noticed a young boy, about 12 to 15-years old grabbing the pink rescue buoy on the beach. It was about 4.30pm.

“At first, I assumed he was just messing around with his friends, but then I saw them on the beach looking panicked, pointing out to sea.

“There were a few people watching, but nobody seemed to be doing anything. That’s when I saw a head bobbing in the surf amid the kelp. Without hesitation, I ran down the stairs, stripped down and grabbed the buoy from the boy, who told me his friend couldn’t swim,” Finneran said.

Finneran competes in Ironman triathlons with a South African Triathlon team called Embark and is an avid surfer.

A notice at the beach. Photo: Toby Finneran

“As a swimmer who does Ironman triathlons with a local South African Triathlon team called Embark, I felt confident in my abilities, even with the five to six feet swell and the strong rip current. I swam out between the two rocks, helped by the rip current, and found the lad, who was half-submerged.

“I gave him the buoy and spoke to him to calm him down and let him catch his breath. Then, I tried to swim with the rope of the buoy to pull him behind me. However, a big set of waves came in, and we were right in the crash zone, at risk of getting thrown onto the rocks,” Finneran said.

He said panic sunk in when the buoy in the water was swept away from him.

“As the wave hit us, the lad was unable to hold onto the buoy and got swept closer to the rocks.

Emergency services attending to the two individuals. Photo: Andrea Steyn

“Before the next wave came, I quickly swam over to him, gave him the buoy, and held onto his arm as I attempted to pull him with me, trying to duck dive under the next wave, which was even bigger and had broken just before reaching us.

“In the gap before the next wave, I swam sideways, trying to make sure that any waves would take us back towards the gap rather than onto the rocks.

“However, I soon realised that the strong current created by the same rip current that had gotten the lad into trouble was pushing us back out to sea. I swam sideways further and towards one of the rocks where I was able to hold on until another set of waves came that I could use to push myself along the rocks causing a few cuts and scratches,” Finneran said.

He was able to get through the gap by using the rock along with a smaller set of waves that came their way.

Toby Finneran jumped into action to save the lives of two people, one in water, another on land. Photo: Toby Finneran

On reaching the other side of the rock, Finneran said the water was shallow right next to the deeper channel caused by the rip current and this showed how the boy could have been pulled out.

“When we got out, he (the boy) was very weak and he didn’t say much. His friend was very grateful. The boy was having problems with leg cramps, arm and chest pains. I sat him down and knew someone who swallowed water could possibility suffer secondary drowning (I learnt this by watching rescue TV shows),” Finneran said.

He called for a bystander to call emergency services and also called his friend in the UK, Greg Neal-Smith, an orthopaedic surgeon to get help and advice on how to assist the boy.

However, Finneran would never have imagined he would be reacting to another emergency at the same time.

“As I was focused on the lad, I suddenly noticed a figure lying motionless face down in the sand. He was about 18 years old and I think he may have tried to save the boy.

“My heart raced, and I ran over, administering first aid with the help of my surgeon friend, putting the person in the recovery position and monitoring their breathing.

“The bystander told me that the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) was on their way, and I posted on a local travel WhatsApp group to get more help.

“Eventually, the NSRI arrived, followed by the fire brigade and paramedics. The lad and the person I had found were both checked over, and one was treated for hypothermia and secondary drowning,” he said.

Asked what he felt when he saw what was happening, Finneran said: “I didn’t have time to think. I just went. I don’t feel like a hero. I think that is what you are supposed to do. If someone is in trouble you should help. It’s your responsibility as a human”.

However, after the incident, Finneran reflected on the incident and said at the time he couldn’t help but think about the dangers of rip currents.

“They’re a hidden danger that can quickly sweep even the strongest swimmers out to sea. I knew from experience how treacherous they can be, and I was grateful that I had been able to help the boy in time,” he said.

Rip currents are caused by the water rushing back out to sea through a gap in a sandbar or between rocks. They can be difficult to spot, but some signs include a channel of churning, choppy water, a difference in water colour, a line of seaweed, or a gap in the incoming waves.

According to the NSRI, spring tide peaked on Friday, May 5, and warned bathers and sea users to be cautious during the Spring Tides higher than normal high tides and lower than normal low tides.

There are two high tides and two low tides daily and times are slighter later on each following day.

“Spring tides are known to cause stronger than normal rip currents and risks are normally increased at the tide change when the high tide peak recedes towards low tide.

“Bathers, paddlers, sailors, shoreline anglers, recreational and commercial boaters are urged to have safety top of mind.

“We are also appealing to parents to ensure that children have responsible adult supervision in and around water – at coastal waters, at inland waters, swimming pools, or any body of water,” the NSRI said.

It is also important to note that once caught in a rip current, stay calm, do not swim against the current, rather swim parallel to the shore. If you cannot swim out of the current, try to float or tread water and signal for help.

“As I watched the emergency services attend to the boy and the person I had found on the beach, I hoped that others would learn from this experience and take the necessary precautions to stay safe in the water. Rip currents are a powerful force, but with knowledge and awareness, we can avoid the dangers they pose.

“More awareness surrounding rip currents should be shared. I have heard of many drownings at beaches in Cape Town and think they should have a notice to say how many drownings have taken place at a particular beach.

“Also, have a notice with imagery of where the rip currents are so there is more awareness to bathers when visiting. The notices should be clear, educational and more in-depth and visual,” Finneran added.

In an emergency contact the NSRI at 087 094 9774.

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