Holidaymaker saves girls from drowning

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A Christchurch man is being hailed as a hero after saving two Nelson girls off Rabbit Island on Saturday afternoon.

Wattie Mortimer, 42, was at Rabbit Island with his wife and two young daughters on the final day of their summer holiday when he heard the cry of help.

Two Stoke girls, said to be aged 10 and 11 by members of the Nelson Coastguard, were onboard a $75 inflatable boat when strong winds and an outgoing tide took them away from their mother, who was sitting on the shore with a toddler.

Wattie’s wife, Christine, said she asked the lady if she’d like her husband to go after them as they realized they could be in real trouble.

Wattie was already in his wetsuit and was swimming in the surf with his daughters when he heard the cries.

“People were screaming and yelling out that those kids are out in the boat and drifting, so I started wading out.”

Another woman, only known as Kirsty, was in the ocean teaching her young daughter how to surf and starting paddling out after them on her surfboard.

After a few minutes of swimming “Kirsty” gave the board to Wattie.

“You looked like a big guy who could get out there, I’m only 45kg and didn’t think I’d be able to hold them,” she told Wattie in the Nelson Coastguard building after the incident.

Wattie took the board and continued to paddle out to the girls. He says it felt like he was swimming for ten minutes and he was “exhausted” when he got to them.

“I got to them and I knew I couldn’t go back. The wind was just dragging us out and down the beach as well. So I said, ‘right, we’re staying here until someone comes and gets us.’”

Wattie tied the surfboard to the inflatable and waited as they drifted south, towards Tahunanui.

He could see his friend on the beach and that he was talking on his mobile phone.

At the same time he tried to keep the girls calm. “They went from not knowing the trouble they were in, to embarrassed that a helicopter or big boat might be needed to rescue them, to quite scared.”

He says they were also very cold and he told them to lie down in the boat to avoid the strong winds.

In total, the inflatable drifted more than a kilometer and for 45 minutes before the Coastguard – which was on another rescue – arrived.

“What a relief that was, a huge relief.”

Pete Kara, of the Nelson Coastguard says the girls were hypothermic and terrified when they got to them.

“But they are going home to mum and dad tonight because of the actions that he [Wattie] has undertaken. He made our job so much easier because he kept them calm.”

Nelson Harbourmaster Dave Duncan says Wattie is “absolutely a hero”, but was furious that the girls were out on the inflatable to begin with.

“Kids going out in little inflatable’s that belong in swimming pools is criminally neglectful in my opinion.

“However, they were there and they are extremely lucky that there were other caring adults on the beach because if Kirsty, the woman with the surf board, and Wattie weren’t there, then it would be a very different result for those parents today.”

Wattie’s youngest daughter Caitlyn, 6, had no doubt about what she thought of her father’s actions. “You’re the greatest hero,” she told him. His reward? “Maybe after dinner you can go back to the beach, because you didn’t get much time there,” she suggested.

As for the man himself, Wattie says he’d just thrilled it worked out.

“Swimming out there I was thinking that it’s always the guy that rescued them that drowns and that’s what was going through my mind. ‘Shit, I’m going to be the guy in the paper’.

“I’m just glad everyone gets to go home to their families. I might have a beer to celebrate.”