Tamarama surfer death: Where were the lifeguards?

Hachette Australia chief executive Matthew Richell died at Tamarama on Wednesday.
Hachette Australia chief executive Matthew Richell died at Tamarama on Wednesday.
Author Hannah Richell, photographed in 2012, described Matt as "the very best father, husband, son and brother". Photo: Tamara Dean

Author Hannah Richell, photographed in 2012, described Matt as "the very best father, husband, son and brother". Photo: Tamara Dean

The death of a surfer at Tamarama beach has the local community asking why they had to wait for a surf life guard to arrive from Bondi.

Book publisher and father of two Matthew Richell, 41, drowned on Wednesday. He was pulled unconscious from the water by other surfers, who tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him.

Richell's widow, Hannah, praised her husband's ''beautiful spirit" on Thursday and said her husband was devoted to his family and his work and was a great friend to many.

"Words cannot express our deep sorrow at losing Matt,'' she said in a short statement. ''He was a beautiful spirit – the very best father, husband, son and brother. We will miss him dreadfully but remember him always with joy in our hearts."

Mr Richell was chief executive of publishing powerhouse Hachette Australia, a role he had held for 18 months following seven years as the company’s sales and marketing director. The couple had met in the UK before migrating to Australia for Mr Richell's work.

Hannah Richell is the best-selling author of two books, The Secret of the Tides and The Shadow Year. Both were published by Hachette, the same publishing house her husband headed up in Australia. The couple have two young children, Jude and Gracie.

Mr Richell's colleague at Hachette, Justin Radcliffe, described his boss as a passionate but relatively relatively new surfer

"He hadn't surfed for long but he was a very enthusiastic surfer. He used to say to me that he loved the surfing but even just sitting out the back on the water filled him with such peace and gave him such an enormous amount of pleasure."

He was surfing out between Tamarama and Bronte beaches when he hit his head on the rocky outcrop between the beaches. Shortly after he was spotted in distress, the area's chief lifeguard Bruce Hopkins arrived on a jet-ski from Bondi Beach.

Bondi, Tamarama and Bronte beaches are in the Waverley Council area. The council only funds professional lifeguards during the winter at one of the three beaches, popular tourist destination Bondi.

Bronte Surf Life Saving Club president Basil Scaffidi  said Mr Richell's death was tragic and raised the issue of year-round beach safety.

''As the president of the Bronte Surf Club, it's heartbreaking,'' he said. ''We didn't have any patrollers on duty yesterday. I really wish we had. But we're all volunteers with jobs too, so we just can't do it midweek in winter.''

Mr Scaffidi said his volunteers commit more than 12,000 hours each year but it would bring great peace of mind to the local community if Tamarama and Bronte had professional lifeguards during the winter months.

''Danger is a strange word as it's relative, really. They're definitely challenging beaches but for someone with ability, you'll usually be OK,'' he said. ''Would a person on duty yestday have changed anything? That's a very important question for Waverley Council.''

Waverley Council has a CCTV camera set up at Bronte so the Bondi-based surf lifeguards can monitor the beach in winter. The night before Mr Richell's accident, they had unanimously approved a similar camera to be set up at Tamarama.

The acting executive manager of the council's safety management unit Safe Waverley, Scott Field,  said the council had made this decision because they recognised the risk. He describes Tamarama and Bronte beaches as ''extremely dangerous''.

''All three beaches are dangerous, but Bondi is the busiest with the greatest demand and council hasn’t required lifeguards in the history I'm aware of,'' Mr Field said, adding it took Hopkins only two minutes to get from Bondi to Tamarama.

Tamarama locals can expect the new surf camera to be installed in ''weeks rather than months'', Mr Field said.

Waverley Council Mayor Sally Betts  said the local lifeguards are devastated they were unable to save Mr Richell.

''It is incredibly sad that Mr Richell received such a bad head injury from being thrown onto the rocks,'' Ms Betts said. ''Council will of course examine the circumstances of this tragic incident to see how we can prevent something awful like this happening again.''

Pressure is mounting on the council to act and employ year-long lifeguards. The period when the beaches are not covered by professional lifeguards begins on the last Sunday of May and extends until the second Sunday of September.

Geoff Williams, a professional lifeguard for 28 years and a water safety consultant and expert witness,  said lifesavers have been campaigning for all-year coverage for decades.

''I'm not critical of the council but it seems obvious to me there should be lifeguards 12 months a year in Sydney at all the major metropolitan beaches,'' he said.

He said he understood the council's need to balance their books but that not investing in the additional three months of wages was a false saving when you factor in the total cost of police, ambulance and helicopter services.

This story Tamarama surfer death: Where were the lifeguards? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.