Between the Flags: Day in the life of a Mount Maunganui surf lifeguard

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Julia Conway, 22, and Tessa Bradley, 19, on patrol. Photo / Jean Bell

By: Jean Bell
Multimedia journalist
Bay of Plenty Times

This summer NZME is helping Surf Life Saving to help save lives. The charity relies on the goodwill of thousands of volunteers, fundraising, grants and sponsorship to keep our beaches patrolled. Here's your chance to help raise money for new equipment and lifeguard training.

Brow furrowed and lips pursed with concentration, Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service lifeguard Julia Conway perches on a stool in the club tower.

The sound of the radio scanner occasionally scratches in the background but Conway's concentration at the task at hand is unflinchable.

Aside from the answering questions I rally at her, she does not divert from her task of carefully scanning the beach through binoculars looking for rips or people in trouble.

The 22-year-old got involved in the sport when she was 12 and has not looked back.

"I got on a kneeboard and loved it".

Her passion turned transformed into a commitment to the public's safety out on the water.

"We want them to enjoy the water as much as we do. We want them to not need us. The goal is zero rescues through preventative action. If people swim between the flags and know their limits they tend to be safe."

This included the basics of rip detection.

Two hotspots on the Mount Maunganui main beach included a rip running alongside Leisure Island - dubbed the "Escalator" - and a rip closer to the base of Mauao.

"The calm place is the worst place to swim. People who aren't good at swimming tend to pick the quiet place ... You tell people, 'Hey you're swimming in the biggest rip on the beach and they're like, 'Oh my god!'" Conway says.

Next, Conway heads down to the beach watch swimmers between the flags where she joins fellow lifeguard, 19-year-old Tessa Bradley.

The two lifeguards patiently stand in the sand and watch the hordes of swimmers splashing around in the waves.

They also act as a lost-property collection and a first aid point. A man comes up to hand in some glittery sunglasses, while another requests a plaster for a small cut.

Next, it is Bradley's turn to head out on a beach roam.

It takes serious multitasking to manoeuvre the four-wheeler motorbike around the many sunbathers dotting the beach while also scanning the water.

Some people wave and smile, others do not even notice the rumble of the engine.

She pulls to a halt when she spots three people on two surfboards near Motuotau (Rabbit) Island.

The trio do not seem to be in distress but their odd location prompts Bradley to have a quick look through the binoculars.

She calls a lifeguard aboard a jetski through her radio and waits until he whizzes around from the main beach to check on the surfers.

The jetski gives the all-clear and Bradley continues on her way down to Tay St before looping back to the main beach.

Bradley drops me off with a smile and I walk away with a renewed appreciation for the work lifeguards do.

The next time I go swimming between the flags I know I will feel safer than ever knowing their commitment to their cause.


This article was originally published in the Bay of Plenty Times/NZ Herald on January 8, 2020.