Lifetime of Surf Service Remembered - Graeme Cullen

Friday, 3 May 2019


Graeme Cullen is being remembered as a Surf Lifesaving statesman; a devoted clubbie who fought fiercely to prevent loss of life on our beaches and who dedicated large swathes of his professional life to serving the movement.

Above all, he was just a really decent bloke.

The former Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ) chairman and life member has passed away, after a long battle with melanoma. He was 61.

Over his 49-year involvement with surf lifesaving, which began as a Waihi Beach cadet in 1970, he served in nearly every role imaginable. He qualified as a lifeguard in 1972 and spent the subsequent years patrolling, competing, instructing, officiating, managing and governing. 

"My first impressions of Graeme were as a sportsman, competing against him on the beach where we were younger, and he was tough and relentless but always fair and always a gentleman," current Surf Life Saving New Zealand chairman Brent Warner said.  

"Those attributes stayed with him throughout his time in surf.  He was also a really optimistic guy, able to see positives in most things, and also had an amazing humility about him.

"While we should celebrate all he gave to surf lifesaving, we should also celebrate the last five years where he fought tenaciously, trying anything if it meant being able to spend more time with (wife) Carol and their boys."

Tauranga-based Cullen had family links to Waihi Beach and joined the surf club there as soon as he could.  He was made a life member of Waihi but shifted to Mount Maunganui in 2004 when his sons James and Thomas were immersed in junior surf.

In 2004, he was also elected chairman of SLSN, after five years as a director on the board. He also spent time as a delegate on the New Zealand Water Safety Council and later, was New Zealand's delegate to the International Life Saving Federation, where he also served as board member.  He was made a life member of SLSNZ in 2012.

Somehow, he managed to juggle all those surf duties with a professional career; he started his working life as a secondary school teacher, became a tutor and then finance manager at the local polytechnic, before entering public practice as a chartered accountant.

To his very core, he remained a lifeguard, however. Right up until he was diagnosed with cancer, he was patrolling, driving IRBs and keeping a sharp eye out between the flags. 

Friends and clubmates remember his passion for surf, the easy and constant smile, his patience and dedication.  He had, they say, sand between his toes.

For a man who dedicated his life to preserving life on our beaches, there can be no greater compliment.

Graeme Cullen is survived by his wife Carol, sons Thomas and James and grandson Jack.


Alister Graeme Cullen (26/2/1958 - 2/5/2019)

Waihi Beach Surf Club (1970-2004)

Life member

Chief instructor 1983/84

Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service (2004-)

Service award 2006


Service Award 1993

Distinguished Service Award 1994

Life membership 1996

President 1991-93



SLSNZ Service Award 1994

Honorary Vice President 1993-96

Delegate to NZ Water Safety Council 1997-2001

Director of Public Education 1998-2000

Director SLSNZ Board 1998-2003

Lifesaving Advisory Committee 2003-10

Chairman SLSNZ Board 2004-10

NZ delegate to International Life Saving Federation 2005-10

International Life Saving Federation - board member 2008/10

International Life Saving Federation - rescue committee 2008/10

Organisational Development Committee 2007-09

Honours & Awards Committee 2007-10