Teen lifeguard a humble hero
Teenage lifeguard James Lee is concise when he talks about the value of saving four lives in an hour from treacherous surf at Hot Water Beach.
"If I wasn't there that would be three, possibly four, people who just wouldn't be alive any more - that's pretty humbling to be touched by fate like that."
It was just another summery October Saturday when James opted to do some lifeguard training - running, jogging, push-ups - on the sand.
About 300 people were milling about the famed thermal area and a solid swell was running, causing strong rips. There were no lifeguards on duty as it was too early in the season.
After an hour's training, James sat down in a hot pool.
Five minutes passed before he noticed some swimmers drifting out into the breakers. "When it happened I didn't hesitate. I was completely expecting something to happen for some reason," he says.
When he reached the two boys, aged 9 and 11, they were tired and in a panic. It was James's first off-duty rescue.
He had no fins, flotation devices or backup, yet he managed to calm the pair down and called two surfers over to keep them afloat.
After the 20-minute rescue, he called head lifeguard Gary Hinds for backup because of the dangerous conditions.
By the time he got back to shore, a girl and a foreign man were in trouble behind the Hot Rock. James prioritised the man, because he could not swim, and told the girl to swim to a sandbar.
"This was the part that actually had me scared because we were at neck level in a current that I couldn't even fight ‘cause I had no fins."
The normal procedure, if stuck in a rip, is to float out and swim sideways out of the current but that was not an option because the man could not swim.
James realised he needed a flotation device and called to shore for someone to bring a boogie board.
He got one and managed to get the man to a sandbar only to turn around and see a 20-year-old swimmer in strife in the same rip.
After that rescue, and flush with adrenaline, he tried to close the beach.
The boys probably would have been "goners" had James not been there. "They were panicking, trying to fight the rip and they were running out of steam. When I got to them they'd had it already.
"I don't want to think what would have happened to them. Their whole family was on the beach and it would have been terrible. And the same thing for that man who couldn't swim.
"He was asking for it coming to Hot Water Beach and swimming when there were big waves. He would have probably been a goner. Luckily I happened to be at the beach."
While James's home is on the Coromandel Peninsula, he decided to go to Mt Albert Grammar School in 2013 to further his education.
The school made a special plaque to mark his actions that day.
No-one in 100 years had warranted such an award so they made a new one to recognise James's outstanding courage and service to the community.
There were half-a-dozen media interviews too. And now it's the "humbling" nomination for the Waikato Times Young Person of the Year.
But James is a humble guy. "I understand where people are coming from but, if it had been anyone else on the beach, they would have done the same thing."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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