Called on to help a drowning man in the same waters that had claimed a life only a week earlier, Matthew Pellow hurried to the shoreline at Wollongong’s City Beach.
After a moment he could see the stricken swimmer, low in the water, disappearing for a few seconds at a time as the sets hit him down. He was about 45 metres off shore, out past the second break, beyond a large and powerful channel.
It was Monday afternoon and Mr Pellow, 27, had read about the emergency that had unfolded at the same beach eight days earlier. A Victorian man, Shaun Oliver, had swum to the aid of a child then. The child was safely returned to shore But Mr Oliver, a father-of-three, got into trouble and could not be revived.
“As I was running over it was the only thing I was thinking about,” Mr Pellow told the Mercury.
“I was thinking, ‘oh God, it’s happening again’.”
A professional triathlete, originally from landlocked Dubbo, Mr Pellow is better placed than most to understand the ocean’s unique power. Swimming in a pool had always come easily to him but swimming in the ocean was something he had to work hard on when he relocated to the Illawarra six years ago.
“When I first moved down I was no good in the surf,” he said. “They’re very different. When you’re in the surf you’ve got water pulling you in all directions at once. You’ve got to hold your breath. You’re combining breathing and activity at the same time an you’ve got to have a high level of fitness. Yesterday the water was cold and when I jumped in I felt my lungs constrict. It took me a few minutes to relax and breath again normally. But due to racing it’s something I knew how to work through quite easily.”
The stricken swimmer, a 19-year-old man, was exhausted when Mr Pellow and another Good Samaritan reached him. “Thankyou,” he said. A surfer with a board helped to bring him ashore, where he collapsed and was later administered oxygen, then taken to hospital for checks.
Mr Pellow described conditions at City Beach as “deceptive”.
“All the water was running through that channel, and there were gullies as well out the back. Depending on where you were, you could be in [either] a metre or two metres of water. I could see how he got knocked over. The waves weren’t that big, but when the sets came in they were quite powerful.”
The emergency came six days before lifeguards and lifesavers will resume at the beach, for the 2017/2018 patrol season.
Across the city’s beaches, patrol hours are divided into shoulder, high and peak seasons, with patrol hours differing depending on a beach’s popularity. Under the arrangements, council lifeguards will patrol North Wollongong Beach on weekdays and Saturdays from 8am-5pm, City Beach from 10am-5pm an Austinmer Beach from 9am-5pm. In peak season the hours extend to 8am-6pm, 9am-6pm and 9am-6pm, respectively.
A full breakdown of beach patrol hours is available on council’s website.
In the wake of Monday’s near-drowning, Mr Pellow proposes a patrol roster based on warm weather, rather than a calendar.
“Last weekend it got to 26-27 degrees. [Monday] was a nice day. It’s the start of spring, people are excited. You’re going to struggle to tell people not to swim on a day like that. I think we need to get a few lifeguards out there.”
Asked to respond, a spokeswoman for Wollongong City Council said lifeguard patrol hours had been increased over the past three years.
“This means Council is more responsive to weather conditions and can extend patrol hours during hotter weather. Last week, for example, Council’s lifeguards extended their patrol of North Wollongong beach by one hour, to 5pm, on Wednesday and Thursday as a result of the warmer weather.”
Mr Oliver will be farewelled at a funeral service in Springvale, Victoria, from 1pm on Thursday.
A Gofundme page set up to support his family has attracted more than $280,000 in donations.
In a message to the page, Mr Oliver’s family has welcomed the support.
“All your support, financial and emotional, has moved us beyond measure,” they wrote. “Obviously nothing can replace this loss but to know that our heartache is shared by so many, to know that Shaun’s sacrifice has been recognised, is something we can hold to.
“Shaun's wife Carla, his brother Bill and sisters Clare and Amie have reached out to their friends and families on Facebook to share their thoughts and remembrances of Shaun. If there is one common thought shared by everyone who knew Shaun, it is that nobody was surprised when they heard what Shaun had done.
“Sacrifice was in his nature.”