Bar Beach rescue earns Mark Doherty lifesaver national acclaim

Cooks Hill SLSC director of lifesaving Mark Doherty accepting the National Rescue of the Month Award. Picture: Surf Life Saving Australia

Cooks Hill SLSC director of lifesaving Mark Doherty accepting the National Rescue of the Month Award. Picture: Surf Life Saving Australia

It was a weekend patrol on Bar Beach’s golden sands, and just like every other until the moment it wasn’t.

Veteran lifesaver Mark Doherty, in his fourth decade patrolling the city beach, had kept his eyes on the surf throughout the day, even after the late afternoon southerly change blew most of the summer crowd off the beach.

The flags came down, and he headed upstairs into the club to rest his eyes and watch the sun droop over the horizon. 

It was roughly 5.30pm when a few people noticed two children snared in the beach’s gutter, bobbing 200 metres and headed away from the shore.

It was the moment it became an extraordinary day for Mr Doherty, recognised this week for one of the most impressive rescues in Australia carried out in February. 

He grasped a board and began paddling out towards the children, passing a man in his mid-30s thrashing his way through the shallower surf.

“You just kick into gear,” Mr Doherty said. 

“Rescues of that calibre, where it’s a life and death situation, I’ve probably only had one other.” 

Both children were pulled out and onto the board, their nine and seven-year-old bodies heaving for air.

"They were sucking in some big breaths,” Mr Doherty said. 

The children’s father, the would-be rescuer Doherty had passed on his way out, was now in his own batch of distress.

He soon ended up in Mr Doherty’s arms as well, helped back to safety.

It was pulling the eldest to safety that tested him the most, Mr Doherty said, and who had the most limited English among the family.

“With kids, they know to throw their hand up and ask for help,” he said. 

“Adults struggle well past when they are struggling.”

All three of the beachgoers disappeared off the sand shortly after they were saved. Mr Doherty said they had not appeared since.

Mr Doherty said the rescue proved the value of Cooks Hill Surf Lifesaving’s refugee and immigrant surf awareness program backed by the Port of Newcastle.  

But it was the dwindling light from the day that stuck with him, months after his board skimmed him towards them. 

“I think the thing that sticks in my mind is that if it happened 20 minutes later it would have been a bit darker,” he said. 

“There might not have been anyone there to help them at all.”

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