TWO surf-ski friends yesterday told how they helped save the lives of seven young rugby players in a 45-minute, adrenalin-fuelled sea rescue.
An eighth player, 18-year-old Kwena Moremi, drowned.
About 30 members of the North West-based Leopards u-19 team had gone to the East London beach on Friday after a 19-16 win over Border.
The team left the Blue Lagoon Hotel for the beach at 4.30pm. Shortly after 5pm, 12 players were caught in a rip tide. While four swam to safety, eight were swept out 100m from the shore.
Friends Paul Proctor, 37, and Doug Copeland, 46, were paddling on surf skis at the time.
Proctor said yesterday: "The sea was rough and the swell big. We were paddling not far from each other when we started hearing screams and saw people waving and shouting for help.
"It was after 5pm, when there are no lifeguards on duty at Nahoon Beach. The players were in the surfline, which is very dangerous territory for swimmers to be. So Doug and I paddled in their direction to save them."
Copeland said by the time they reached the players, they were "scattered" around. "Each moment wasted meant the guys were being swept further out. Paul and I split up and I reached the two guys who were closest to each other first," he said.
The young players were very scared and crying.
"They grabbed hold of my seatbelt and we took about five minutes to paddle to shore. When they were safe I rushed back to sea," Copeland said.
By that time Proctor had managed to round up three more players but was unable to paddle them all back to shore, while the three others were still stranded.
Copeland said he rounded up the other three onto his paddle ski but one, Moremi, was semiconscious and struggling to hold on.
"I jumped into the water, put his hand over my shoulder and swam in the direction of the shore. We were going in circles because the tide was strong. Paul joined me, and together we got him to shore," Copeland said.
Paramedics, who had arrived by then, worked on Moremi. "We took two minutes to rest and when we looked at the sea we could not see the five players and our boats because the swell was huge," Proctor said. They walked along the beach until they spotted the frightened players in the swell, still holding onto the paddle skis, which were heading further out into the ocean.
"When we got back out to the boats, we wanted to [turn] them in the direction of the beach but the players panicked. I had to shout at them, telling them if they wanted to live they should listen to us.
"When they did, we combined the boats and pushed them to the shore," he said.
By the time they arrived back on shore with the five players, Moremi had been declared dead.
Leopards Rugby Union chief executive Louis du Plessis said: "We would like to thank Proctor and Copeland very much for what they did."