This story was printed in 2010 as a tribute to our national army of ‘good guys’ who have saved more than 50,000 lives since they first guarded our beaches 100 years ago. Surf Lifesaving is as much a valued and integral part of our community today as it was in 1910. See what the cover stars Ellie and Jordan York look like now in our 40th issue cover story.
WORDS CHARLES MARTIN IMAGES QUINN O’CONNELL AND COURTESY OF SURF LIFESAVING NEW ZEALAND
The first clubs were formed in Christchurch, Wellington, Dunedin and Wanganui – Bay of Plenty and Waikato clubs followed soon after. Since then more than 250,000 people, men, women and children, have belonged to the New Zealand surf lifesaving movement.
Today there are nearly 16,000 members in 75 clubs throughout the country. Commenting on the centenary celebrations, Grant Florence, Surf Lifesaving’s chief executive, said: “It’s the celebration of one hundred years of community spirit, camaraderie and sense of responsibility for others in our community. It is our opportunity to promote our proud history and acknowledge the fundamental role surf lifeguards play in keeping New Zealand’s favourite playground safer for everyone”.
He is so right. The famous yellow and red flags marking out safe swimming areas, and the professional and well-trained lifeguards manning towers and patrolling the beaches, have been a comforting presence and a source of security for generations of New Zealand Mums, Dads and their families.
UNO. Magazine has featured the sport a number of times including in a hugely popular cover story about two local New Zealand representatives, Holly Moczydlowski and Johanna O’Connor, and only recently in a brief story about the Bay of Plenty’s regional volunteer lifeguard of the year, Travis Mc Geady, from Waihi. We like to give surf lifesaving a fair measure of exposure because, like most other New Zealanders, our staff have either had direct contact with the movement, or have benefited from it in some way in the process of bringing up their own families.
The first happened many years ago before I was married, but I was ‘betrothed’ at the time and as you will see, that was important. It was one of those fine, sparkling summer days in Wellington and as a callow young broadcaster I was assigned as the commentator for a surf lifesaving telecast at Titahi Bay, home of some of the best surfboat crews in the country. We were hoping for lively water and some spectacular pictures to go with the usual competitive stuff – big boats racing through a tortuous surf.
Prior to the afternoon telecast I decided to join some of the television crew plus local surfies for a lunchtime swim to relax and test the conditions so that I could ‘speak with authority’ during the telecast. The gods were not in my corner that day. A large and boisterous wave dumped me heavily and for the first time ever while swimming, my dentures shot from my mouth to the sandy floor below. I called on the good services of the Titahi Bay lifeguards for search assistance and we quickly formed a chain holding hands to retrace my position when disaster struck and try and locate the plastic munchers. I swear I had a foot on the bottom set at one stage but again got bowled over by a wave and the search was abandoned. That was the last I ever saw of my teeth!
I thanked the Titahi Bay boys for their help and headed back to town after making arrangements for a replacement commentator. But to add insult to this drama I had arranged to go to my fiancé’s flat for the evening meal. She had prepared a beautiful roast, which I couldn’t handle very well. Also she had never before seen me sans teeth! However, we are still married.
COOK STRAIT SWIMS
The next experience which endeared me to surf lifesavers was the first of the modern Cook Strait swim attempts back in 1960 by Bill Penny and his team from the Lyall Bay surf lifesaving club, together with a local Italian fisherman and his supporting launch. We set out in the very early hours of the morning and all went well on a fine morning in good water conditions. As public interest increased, the hourly reports on the local radio station were increased in frequency and extended to involve the entire commercial network. Such was the public interest throughout the country that later the non-commercial National Programme network also joined us for quarter-hour updates.
Meantime, down in the warm diesel-fume filled galley, a kindly lifeguard offered me lunch – a large beef sandwich and a lukewarm beer. I came back up on deck into the fresh air and the lunch came up soon after. No wonder I have a special regard for surf lifesavers!
Sadly he failed by a close margin and we all repaired back to Wellington and the Lyall Bay clubrooms for a ‘debriefing’. Everyone was determined to fight another day. Unfortunately I wasn’t there to see it and it wasn’t Lyall Bay that sponsored the successful attempt. The Worser Bay club swimmer, the late Barrie Devenport, made his first successful crossing while I was otherwise engaged at the Commonwealth Games in Perth.
More than 60 swimmers have swum Cook Strait since that famous first successful crossing in 1962, most of them members of surf lifesaving clubs.
However the close rapport I had established with various guys from surf lifesaving (many of whom were also prominent in various local rugby teams – a successful cross-over that remains unchanged today) ensured that I enjoyed a good knowledge of how the sport was organised, managed and funded. I was appalled that, despite the huge number of rescues, not one life insurance company sponsored the clubs or the movement at that time.
After all those companies were substantial beneficiaries from the good deeds of clubs throughout New Zealand. So, as a regular weekly columnist then for the New Zealand
Listener and as a gesture designed to help surf lifesaving and endue a sense of guilt on a few selected businesses, I wrote about this, taking insurance companies to task in no
uncertain terms. I castigated the parsimonious attitude of an ungrateful industry. It struck a few chords! Public broadcasting was then a government department, including its official organ the New Zealand Listener. The stuff really hit the fan from on high. Some ‘friends at court’ and Party and ministerial friends were not amused and this displeasure was sheeted home to me in no uncertain terms!
I repaired to the Lyall Bay clubrooms to lick my wounds. It was a most sympathetic climate and after a number of free beers life didn’t seem quite so serious nor the damage to New Zealand business quite so shattering. However I might add that at least one or two
insurance companies did come to the party with sponsorship for surf lifesaving reasonably soon afterwards. Those are just a few reasons why I love surf lifesavers. Some of the others must remain on the bus.
BETWEEN THE FLAGS
Surf lifesaving has a fabulous history involving the widest range of New Zealanders from famous soldiers, top politicians and businessmen to Olympic champion sportsmen, ordinary Joe Blows (and Mrs. Blows) and some memorable characters. It is a history studded with drama and comedy, community service and mateship – the good, the bad and the ugly.
All this is captured in fascinating detail in a new 400-page book just published to mark the centenary of the sport. Titled ‘A Century Between the Flags’ it has been brilliantly edited by Bob Harvey, former advertising guru, Mayor of Waitakere, President of the Labour Party, but above all a passionate and long-time lifeguard in his own right and the current President of Surf Lifesaving New Zealand.
In his introduction he writes: “As a 15-year-old I biked west over the Waitakere Ranges one day. Through the dust and gravel rising off West Coast Road I saw the black sands of Karekare Beach and beyond the Manukau Bar sweeping out to the Tasman Sea. As I pedalled down the hill and under the pohutukawas I saw something that would change my life. The local surf club was in the middle of a three-day carnival to celebrate 21 years patrolling the beach. Kegs of DB cooled in the stream. The smell of cooking sausages and mussels filled the air. I saw where I was meant to be and I joined up that day. Like many young men, I went to a special local beach and became part of a new family. The decision I made that day on Karekare has defined my life. It has shaped who I am”.
In this nice word picture he has summed up what surf lifesaving has meant to thousands of New Zealand boys and girls, men and women. The sport has contributed immeasurably to the goodness and character of our nation. In this commemorative volume this contribution is documented in vibrant form with excellent illustrations. The book is peppered with vignettes and recollections by the famous, the legends, the characters and the comedians that are part and parcel of surf lifesaving over the decades.
BAY OF PLENTY BEGINNINGS
All areas of the country get a fair share of coverage, including our own regions of Bay of Plenty and Waikato. For instance it is reported that while the present Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service originated from a meeting held in December 1929, and is recognised as the first surf lifesaving club in the Bay of Plenty, there was an earlier group of surf bathers who patrolled the main beach. A public meeting was called in 1914 to discuss the formation of a club.
The Te Puke and Tauranga Amateur Swimming clubs later affiliated to the Mount Maunganui Surf Lifesaving Club and the Tauranga Girls Club was established in 1932, only the second women’s club formed in the country. There are now 15 clubs in the region including the
major tourist beaches at the Mount, Whangamata and Ohope. There are also clubs at Hot Water Beach, Tairua, Pauanui, Onemana, Whiritoa, Waihi Beach, Omanu, Papamoa, Maketu, Pukehina, Thornton, Whakatane and Opotiki.
And so it goes on – chapter and verse, facts and figures, historic trivia in many instances but spiced with stories of dramas – shark attacks, drownings, the Wahine disaster in Wellington Harbour, the ‘Anzac bond’ established through surf lifesaving even before Gallipoli, plus the recollections of our great soldier and military leader General Freyberg (who also swam the English Channel).
There is very little that has been over-looked and it is all supported splendidly with outstanding illustrations and cartoons. One of my favourites was a photograph taken during the 2010 nationals at Ōhope featuring a flotilla of surf boats in the shallows at sunrise, ready for the day’s competition. It is evocative and beautiful.
The various chapter titles in this history are a catalogue in themselves of developments in surf lifesaving over one hundred years – the Anzac Code, From Neck to Knee to Now, From Ladies to Ironwomen, Having Fun, Tragedies, Officials, The Winds of Change, Chopper Boys, Rubber Ducks, Gladiators of the Surf, Our Second Century and finally the Roll of Honour.
THE LAST WORD
Celebrations to mark one hundred years of surf lifesaving are being held at clubs throughout the country. Many of the stories are getting longer and more elaborate, the waves much higher, the rips more dangerous and at these commemorative social functions the tellers of tales are a little less fit, not so much hair on top and maybe just a touch of a paunch here and there. But hey, it’s been a great ride! Surf Lifesaving is one of those activities that combines service to the community with sport, recreation, tons of fun-filled summer days and mates that last a lifetime – surely some of the best elements of our national character.
The final word in our tribute goes to Bob Harvey, President of Surf Lifesaving New Zealand:
‘New Zealand surf lifesavers have always been ready to come to the rescue. Through the long summer months, the guardians of the beach are ever on the lookout for an upraised hand, ears pricked for a cry for help. The yellow-and-red flag has remained a symbol of safety in the surf. Though traditions, equipment and practices have changed, one fact has endured – lifeguards are in it for life.’
More than 35,000 school children attend beach education sessions throughout New Zealand each year. In the last 20 years, drowning rates have reduced by over 50 percent. It may also come as a surprise to learn that Surf Lifesaving receives absolutely no funding from central government – everything they do and deliver is funded by donation, grants and sponsorship.
‘Nippers’ is the affectionate name for Surf Lifesaving’s comprehensive training programme for youngsters.
From the age of seven, children can join their local Club to participate in Junior Surf. Kids are encouraged to have fun and develop skills so they can enjoy the beach and one day be able to save someone else too. The programme is all about developing tomorrow’s lifeguards and opens up a whole new world for children.
Although programmes for Nippers vary slightly in format from club to club (they used to be called ‘Midgets’ on the local scene), the essentials are the same – instilling in children a sense of confidence and skills to enable them to progress through levels leading to competition, patrols and coaching. The local Omanu Surf Club has the largest ‘nippers programme’ in the country, but all clubs in the region cater for, and welcome, youngsters to their ranks.