Meet lifeguard Fabian Bull

ON SUNDAY, Fabian Bull saved a man’s life.

The beach-loving 47-year-old became a lifeguard about five years ago, moving down to Brighton after a decade as a teacher in Ringmer.

He had fallen in love with the coast after going to university in Portsmouth, and decided it was time for a career change after the death of his father, which he said “changed my perspective on life”.

“I just like being outside, on the beach, and I’m working with a lot of like-minded people - sea people,” he explained.

But he was not to know that his knowledge of the sea, as well as his strong skills as a swimmer, would be pivotal in rescuing a barely-conscious man from Brighton’s raging waves.

The Argus:

The rescue

“You are not obliged to go in.”

Fabian Bull was advised by colleagues to think carefully as they stood on Brighton beach watching three people being tossed by powerful waves.

But the 47-year-old lifesaver did not hesitate – he kitted up and dashed into the crashing surf.

“One was clearly drowning,” said Fabian. “I had to make a decision.”

The Argus:

The surly, churning sea had dragged a swimmer almost two miles from near Brighton Palace Pier to the marina, not far from Fabian’s home in Marine Parade.

The on-duty lifeguard team received the alarm call on Sunday afternoon and raced along the promenade on their quad bikes.

Fabian was one of the team out on patrol, stationed near the Albion Groyne.

“It was a pretty big day, weather wise,” he said.

“Rough seas, high winds, the tide was coming in, yet there were still people in the water.”

It was one of these swimmers who sparked the alert, sending the team speeding towards Black Rock.

Fabian said: “When we got there, there were no other emergency services there.

“The lifeboat at Brighton Marina could not launch, it was too rough, so the larger lifeboat from Shoreham was tasked.”

But, with six miles to travel before it reached the scene, the lifeguards had to act.

Fabian could see three people in the sea – two others had gone into the water to try to help the struggling swimmer.

The Argus:

“Weirdly, there was also a man running along the seafront with a life ring and no trousers or pants on. Everything was in full view,” he said.

“I’m not sure what he was going to do, but that’s what we saw.

“The swimmer’s family were there as well.”

In a brief discussion, Fabian was told he was “under no obligation to go in because of the rough sea and dangerous tide”.

But he suited up anyway and plunged into the sea.

“You had south westerly winds blowing at 40mph and a high tide pushing you towards the marina arm,” he said.

The struggling man was being pushed fast.

Fabian said: “I had to make a decision, he was clearly drowning and was not going to make it back. I knew I could do it.”

Fabian is a competitive swimmer and had been practising going in and out of the water that morning.

The Argus:

As he began the perilous rescue, he passed a pair of trousers floating in the water – it seemed likely the man on the beach had lost his trousers in the raging waves.

Fabian headed towards the swimmer. He said: “I knew I could get to him and put a life tube around him to keep him afloat. The plan was to swim out and wait for a lifeboat.”

But the man was in a worse condition than expected when Fabian reached him.

He said: “When I got out there, one guy was in a very bad condition, pale, unresponsive, gasping.”

One of the other two had managed to get out and Fabian told the other one, who seemed capable, to swim back to the shore.

But the helpless swimmer was now floating, limp in the water and it proved incredibly difficult to move him.

Fabian said: “I attempted to swim out further to get help from the lifeboat, but he was going under quite a lot – I had to hold on to him and I could see the marina arm getting closer out of the corner of my vision.

“So I made the decision to drag him back to shore.”

But the hardest part of the demanding rescue had only just begun.

As Fabian headed towards the shore, the waves threw him head over heels, repeatedly pushing him under the water. As this happened, the rope attached to the life tube which was keeping the man afloat wrapped around his neck.

“It was a very difficult journey back,” he said. “The casualty was unresponsive, at times I thought I was dragging a dead body.

“We got closer to shore then, out of nowhere, a 10ft wave came and pushed us towards the beach.

“But it dumped the casualty on top of me, pushing me under water again.”

The Argus:

By now, a group of people had gathered on the beach and police, ambulance and Coastguard crews had arrived.

Fellow lifeguard Adrian Miller cleared the shoreline and went into the shallows alongside police and Coastguards to help with the final leg of the journey.

This was no mean feat. Fabian said: “They timed it absolutely perfectly. The beach, at the water’s edge, is extremely steep at high tide. For them to come and pull us out, it was very dangerous in itself, they could have all been dragged in.

“But, because he knows the tides, Adrian was able to time it perfectly.”

But there was no relief for Fabian after he clambered out of the sea.

“I had taken on quite a lot of water,” he said.

“There were times when I could see the white stars around my eyes and I was losing consciousness. I thought that was it. When I got to shore, I was mainly just coughing and spluttering. I didn’t really know what I had done.”

Fabian was taken to an ambulance to be checked over, but his day was not done. “I couldn’t wait to get out,” he said.

“I felt like I should be involved in what was going on outside. I discharged myself and got back to the office for a debrief.”

The Argus:

He said his fellow lifeguards were shell-shocked after the drama of Sunday, adding: “We do have rescues like this but not every day, and there was a chance they could have lost a colleague.

“But we have to reflect on what we did and what can be learned.”

The terrifying incident could have been avoided if people had followed lifeguard advice.

“We put the red flags up but people go in anyway,” Fabian said. They say, ‘I can handle it’.

“And they can, up to the point where it all goes wrong.”

The Argus:


Lifeguards say lives could be lost if people do not respect the sea.

Fabian Bull said the Brighton teams had dealt with large numbers of people putting themselves at risk in rough seas in the days leading up to Sunday’s dramatic sea rescue.

He said: “For days we have been on the shoreline telling people (in the water) to come back.

“The day before (the rescue) we saw two five or six-year-olds playing in the water while their dad sat against a wall.

“They were down from London, and people coming down from London don’t really know about our sea conditions.

“We had the red flags up but people go in anyway.

“Sometimes I think people think we are the fun police, but we have seen these things happen.

“Every season there are major incidents.

“On the same beach last year I pulled someone out of the water and gave them CPR but they didn’t survive. If lifeguards are putting red flags up and telling you not to swim, it’s for a reason.

“They are not obliged to go in and rescue people, but they might feel obliged to, otherwise someone could drown.

“And now, in these Covid times, emergency services are already stretched.

“People need to think about their actions.”