Wahine on Water goes national

Friday, 6 September 2019

When four young lifeguards were asked to dream up ways to make Surf Life Saving New Zealand stronger they never dreamed the discussion would spark an inspirational programme now being rolled out nationwide – and it has already shown great results.

Lifeguards Julia Conway, Phoebe Havill, Phil Pirie and Paul Hardy are the brains behind Wahine on Water – a mentoring programme to foster and encourage women to not be shy about training to drive the fast-paced high revving IRBs (Inflatable Rescue Boats), as well as taking on other challenging roles within the organisation. 

They were taking part in a development programme for young lifeguards, called Leaders for Life sponsored by BP, when they identified the problem – and a solution.

Lots of young women enter lifeguarding, but significantly less women than men complete the training to become IRB drivers and senior lifeguards, Onemana Beach lifeguard Phoebe Havill says

On a recent advanced lifeguard school course Phoebe says she was one of five women candidates out of about 20 in the class.

From discussions with other young lifeguards, the Wahine on Water team knew women lifeguards were interested in taking on more responsibility and learning more skills, but something was getting in the way. 

The group realised IRB training was a crucial step many women weren’t taking.

“Once you’ve got your IRB drivers qualification it’s a pre-requisite for advanced lifeguard school. You’re more likely to go on to become a patrol captain, you’re more likely to get a job as a regional lifeguard. It’s important in terms of leadership positions,” Phoebe says. 

IRBs play a role in about 40 percent of rescues by Surf Life Saving New Zealand lifeguards.

“A lot of people are a bit intimidated by the IRBs. They can go pretty fast, and it can be pretty scary out there in the big waves – males are more keen to get in them and go for it than females. Females tend to take a step back,” she says.

“So we wanted to show everyone that they are quite capable, and by having female instructors it meant the girls could see them getting out there, and see that they can too.” 

They organised a series of Wahine on Water workshops for women who were already trained and crewing IRBs who spent a day showing the group the ropes.

“It was really awesome, everyone got on so well, and met lots of people from different areas, and got the chance to get out in the IRBs in a non-intimidating environment,” Phoebe says.

“Our IRB mentors were really happy to get involved and teach, and they also found they were learning by teaching.“It’s really cool and exciting to see where it’s gone from there.”

Three Wahine on Water days have been held so far, at Whangamata and Omanu Beaches in April, and at Mairangi Bay in Auckland, on 1 September.

SLSNZ Coromandel Club and Member Development Officer Chaz Gibbons-Campbell has been one of the big backers for the programme. He says the Wahine on Water days have been so successful, and the value to the organisation has been so clear that SLSNZ has now backed the programme to extend it nationally.

“The enthusiasm it’s created is really noticeable,” Chaz says. “We’ve seen a jump in our females registering for our IRB exams just off the back of the first few events, and even the jump in numbers at other events that aren’t IRB-specific, it’s mostly people that have gotten the bug on Wahine on Water events.

“It’s gathering momentum, and they’re making new friends and going to those training days and events around the region knowing they’ll see each other there.”

Sadly Paul Hardy and Phil Pirie have now shifted overseas, but Phoebe and Julie are still strongly driving Wahine on Water.

In July Phoebe and Julia were awarded the Coromandel Innovation of the Year award at the regional Surf Life Saving Awards, for Wahine on Water.

Phoebe says ultimately the idea is to extend the IRB workshops throughout the country, and to add on a wider variety of mentoring and networking opportunities in different areas of the organisation.

“It creates a better space for equality. We want surf lifesaving to be something everyone can get involved with, and females do enjoy it and make really good leaders and instructors. I think it’s really important.”

“We see the IRBs as a starting point to leadership. Once you’ve got the IRB driver qualification a lot more doors open to them and it’s easier to progress.” 

Another three Wahine on Water days are planned coming up in September and October, for Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington. (For more details, see the SLSNZ Calendar).

Leaders for Life programme director Gavin Mason says providing leadership opportunities for members has always been a key part of Surf Life Saving NZ’s operations. And the team are very proud to see how far the Wahine on Water group has taken this idea once they were given the encouragement to make change happen.

Leaders for Life is sponsored by BP New Zealand. That sponsorship allows the leadership programme to happen, allows members from throughout New Zealand to take part, and take new ideas and leadership skills back to their clubs, he says.

“BP are one of Surf Life Saving New Zealand’s biggest sponsors, and they support this programme specifically – there’s many great outcomes of that, and it has been good to see this concept go from just an idea, to having it rolled out nationally within 12 months of meeting up at our first workshop.

“That’s thanks to BP, a group of motivated clubbies, and our Eastern Region office that have fostered this.”


Top – I Rangiatea Shepherd, left, and Brooke Clark on Wahine on Water training run.

Middle – Wahine on Water Mairangi Bay participants: L to R, Kaitlyn Pennell, (founder) Phoebe Havill, and Tyla Rose.

Please click here for the Surf Life Saving New Zealand file images kit.

For more information, please contact:

Gavin Mason, Leaders for Life programme director
021 832 000,

Phoebe Havill, Onemana Surf Life Saving Club member and Wahine on Water founder
021 187 5634,

Rajal Middleton, Surf Life Saving NZ Commercial Manager
027 457 1001,