Fancy a dip? It’s a lovely day after all, with a maximum temperature of 32 degrees and wide blue skies yonder.

If you’re in Sydney, why not head down to Bondi Beach, arguably Australia’s most famous stretch of sand?

But if you do go, perhaps heed the warnings of this salutary tale from 72 years ago…

The day was Sunday 6 February 1938. It began quietly enough. The weather was sunny and clear, much like any other summer day in Sydney, and Bondi was jam-packed with a crowd of between 30,000 and 60,000 sun-seekers frolicking on the beach.

Despite the clear day, the sea was rough. It was high tide, there were strong cross currents and big waves were crashing 80 metres off shore. The local surf club was carrying out training exercises and warming up for their weekly competition. Lifeguards set the flags at around 70 metres apart, keeping a good eye out the 800 or so who were paddling at the shore.

But at three o’clock, disaster struck! Three enormous waves crashed onto the beach within minutes, ‘one after another’. The backwash was so strong that it whisked around 300 people off their feet, and dragged them screaming and crying into the surf, and out past the breakers.

Panic ensued, as the ‘victims clutched and grabbed at each other in an effort to stay afloat’. The surf-lifesavers, who were in the midst of changing their duty patrol, dashed into the ‘mountainous seas’ with ‘surf skis, surf boats and surf o’planes’. Reinforcements from other surf-lifesaving clubs were called, as well as doctors and ‘ambulance men’ who revived the unconscious with artificial respiration and oxygen.

According to some of the rescuers, one of the most remarkable features of the event was the panic among the men. One surf-lifesaver recalled that ‘the men were crying like girls, shrieking with terror, and shouting wildly for help …On the other hand the girls were calm and seemed to wait quietly, keeping above water as best they could until they were rescued’. Another lifesaver said that he had been seized by five men who refused to let go, threatening to drown them all.

The lifesavers cleared the beach within half an hour. Most of those rescued ‘received immediate treatment on the beach, and recovered without any apparent effects of their terrible ordeal’. Thirty five people were unconscious and had to be resuscitated, and five souls died in the tragedy. One of the victims, Charles Saur (also known as Charles Sweet) drowned while saving the life of a young girl.

All in all, over 80 lifesavers risked their lives. They were highly commended by the Coroner, Mr Oram, for their bravery, and for taking such prompt action in rescuing and resuscitating so many people in the face of chaos and panic. One overseas visitor, the French-Canadian wrestler Francois Fouche, ‘said that he had never seen anything so magnificent’. But the Bondi Surf Lifesaving club decided ‘that no individual member …should be singled out for special recommendation’ because their efforts overall were a ‘credit to the club as a whole’.

February 1938 was a deadly month in Sydney’s history: Black Sunday was followed by the capsizing of harbour ferry The Rodney within a week. Ah, that cruel mistress, the sea…