A hero at just sixteen years of age

Bilinga Surf Life Saving Club volunteer surf lifesaver Joshua McIlwain was enjoying a day at Palm Beach with his family on the 4th October 2021. He had been discussing the surf conditions with his grandfather, John Hoyland – a long-serving surf lifesaver and former Club Captain of Coolangatta Surf Life Saving Club. It was a day of dangerous surf with a strong northerly rip current with a strong undertow. John was pointing out to Josh what the quickest and safest way would be to rescue someone from the rip if the need arose.

A week before this beach outing, Josh completed his Bronze Medallion training – the level of training required by surf lifesavers to undertake beach patrol services and be equipped with the lifesaving skills and knowledge required of a surf lifesaver.

Given the conditions on the day that Josh and his family visited the beach, his grandfather wanted to make sure his grandkids all got out of the water safely before he left for the day. They all returned to shore and decided they would stay out of the water and remain on the sand, so John headed home.

Josh and his siblings were playing touch football on the sand when Josh noticed a young boy in the water caught in the rip current he had just been discussing with his grandfather. He was quickly being dragged out to sea. The young boy’s parents were frantically trying to get out to save him from drowning.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Josh put into practice the lifesaving training that was so fresh in his mind, as well as the advice he had just received from his grandfather. Grabbing a boogie board off the sand as he ran into the water, Josh was focused on getting to the boy as quickly as possible.

By this stage, not only did the young boy require rescuing, but the boy’s mother had also got caught in the rip while trying to help her son and was becoming increasingly distressed.

Josh continued to swim out to the pair, extending the boogie board to them. He told them to grab onto the board and reassured them that they would be okay. The on-duty surf lifesavers further down the beach had also been alerted to the rescue underway and assisted Josh by taking the boy’s mother back to shore on a rescue board while Josh brought her son safely back to shore on the boogie board.

“It only took about two or three minutes, but it felt like two or three hours,” Josh said.

Josh relied on the training he had just received to calmly and effectively rescue the 10-year-old boy.

“One of the big things we learned was don’t panic; be calm, otherwise you will make the other person more stressed. You need to communicate to them that they’re okay and they’ll be back to shore soon. They need to be reassured,” he said.

Watching on from the shore, Josh’s mum, Megan, saw the whole event unfold.

“I was thinking, ‘hurry up and get to the little boy but also hurry up and get out of the water!’

“It makes me cry every time I think about what Josh did. To watch him put those skills into practice so seamlessly without a second thought of himself, I really am so proud and so grateful that he could help save a life,” Megan said.

Being a family that has grown up on the coast and spent most weekends at the beach, Megan knew the situation could have ended very differently if not for Josh’s bravery and quick thinking.

“It was quite unpredictable surf; it wasn’t a safe day. It could have gone two ways, especially when the mum got into distress too,” she said.

Both Josh and Megan credit his Surf Life Saving training for preparing him so well for such an occasion, allowing the rescue skills to come naturally to him.

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