Between the Flags: Try and guess lifeguards' day jobs

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Troy and Kirsty. We look at the people behind the yellow and red uniform from the Piha club. Photo / Steen Bech 

By: Elizabeth Binning
Chief of staff, NZ Herald

This summer NZME is helping Surf Life Saving New Zealand 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.

Lifeguards are simply ordinary Kiwis, doing extraordinary things in their spare time.

They are busy police officers, surgeons, teachers, students and tradies. They come from all walks of life with a united desire to help others.

Last summer 16 people died at our beaches, but thanks to the tireless efforts of nearly 5000 lifeguards just over 700 lives were saved. None of the drownings happened between the flags.

Those rescues were made by guards who gave up not only their time but often forked out for uniforms and equipment, paid for fuel and food or spent countless hours out fundraising to keep their club running - it has cost them personally to keep us safe.

Surf Life Saving doesn't receive any government funding. It relies on the goodwill of volunteers, fundraising and support from local body authorities.

This season the number of lives saved continues to grow. Today we look at some of the people giving up their free time to help keep our beaches safe.

MEGAN GRINLINTON, general surgery trainee

Megan the Surf Lifeguard. Megan the surgeon. Photo credits: Steen Bech 

Why did you become a lifeguard?

I started Nippers at 7 and have been lifeguarding since I was 14, with a few years off for medical school and work in different hospitals around the country.

I love the beach and the outdoors so it was a great weekend activity. I went on to become a lifeguard as a natural progression. I really enjoyed the social side of it, meeting other people my age, and subsequently the competitions and the Huntington Exchange [Kiwi lifeguards travel to the US while Huntington Beach Junior Guards travel to New Zealand]. Piha became a very special place for me. Now that I'm older I can appreciate the idea of community service and giving back, but there's also a huge element of fun there.

What is your most memorable rescue or lifeguarding experience?

I remember crewing the IRB for a multi-person rescue when I was in my early teens and quite junior. Two surfers and a swimmer got swept out in a rip around the front of Lion Rock. We had been doing driving practice on the boats and then suddenly we had to whip around and perform a rescue. It was out of my comfort zone and I had trouble grabbing them and getting them into the boat because I was little, but we got all three of them safe and sound on to the beach. It was a great experience and taught me how rapidly a situation can change in the water.

What do you love about lifeguarding?

I love the community that exists within our surf club and between all lifeguards in the wider setting. The most special thing for me is having an ongoing connection with people at Piha for several decades, and the lifelong friendships. Even when I've taken time out to go away or move cities, whenever I get back I am welcomed with open arms. There are people in the club who have been there since I was 7 years old, teaching me to swim and taking me through the Keyhole and they all feel like my dads and mums. Now I'm a bit older and help with junior guards it feels like I've come full circle. It's amazing how we are all from different backgrounds and walks of life, but lifeguarding brings us together as a team and a family.

TROY MIDDLETON: Year 12 student Mt Albert Grammar

Troy and Kirsty the Surf Lifeguards. Troy and Kirsty the Year 12 high school students. Photo credits: Steen Bech 

Why did you become a lifeguard?

I have done Nippers at Piha since I was 8 so becoming a lifeguard was a natural progression.

How long have you been a lifeguard?

Three years.

What is your most memorable rescue or lifeguarding experience?

During a patrol, two lifeguards went out on the IRB to help a surfer who had got into trouble around Lion Rock where there is a strong rip current. The engine stalled and the IRB crew member fell out. The driver came back to shore by himself quickly and asked me to get into the IRB as it had now become a double rescue – the surfer and the original lifeguard. We drove out in front of Lion Rock, picked up the surfer in distress, and then the other lifeguard, and brought them to shore. We had to act fast. The surfer thought he was going to die. He was bleeding and was tired from trying to stay afloat and being smashed against the rocks. The surfer was really grateful and relieved. He was in his 20s and from Scotland – it was his first time at Piha surfing. It feels pretty special to save someone and I'm glad he didn't become a fatal statistic.

What do you love about lifeguarding?

Being with my mates at the beach lifeguarding, helping people stay safe and driving the rescue vehicles.

KIRSTY GAGE, Year 12 student at Mt Albert Grammar

Why did you become a lifeguard?

I became a lifeguard because every day you are on patrol, you have the possibility of being able to make an impact on someone in saving their life. Also because you get to meet lifetime friends and it also teaches you discipline and maturity in a lot of ways.

2020 is only my third season of being a lifeguard at Piha so I haven't made any real active rescues yet.

What do you love about lifeguarding?

Being around the beach in general throughout the summer, meeting new friends, being able to have fun as well as knowing when the right time to be serious is, and also knowing you might have an impact on someone's life.


Duncan the Surf Lifeguard. Duncan the carpenter. Photo credits: Steen Bech 

Why did you become a lifeguard?

I started lifeguarding as all my friends were doing it and seemed like a good way to meet girls back then. I have been doing it since I was 14 at Piha – 34 years in total. I'm a life Member.

What is your most memorable rescue or lifeguarding experience?

Two Russians were swimming outside the flagged area and got caught in a rip near Lion Rock. It was smashing them against the rocks. We needed to take the IRB and rescued both of them.

What do you love about lifeguarding?

You create friendships for life. Every day is different – every hour, the beach is constantly changing as are the people.

SHANE DEVERY, Deputy principal at Auckland Normal Intermediate

Shane the Surf Lifeguard. Shane the deputy principal. Photos: Steen Bech

Why did you become a lifeguard?

I spent my youth out on the west coast at Piha and Karekare. I got my bronze qualification to be a pool lifeguard at the time. I didn't actually patrol on the beach then.

Years later after getting married and having kids I wanted them to have life skills and started them in Nippers. My eldest daughter was 6 and is now 16. I became actively involved as a Nippers' coach. I then resat my bronze when she was 12 as I wanted to coach the older kids, and started patrolling. My daughter joined me as a lifeguard when she was 14 and we now patrol together.

How long have you been a lifeguard

I have done five seasons patrolling the beach.

What is your most memorable rescue or lifeguarding experience?

I haven't done a rescue as such but lots of preventative actions. The most memorable was helping a boogie-boarder. We were swimming out of the Keyhole and saw him on his board just about to get into the path of a rip. We helped him in, otherwise he would have been in big trouble as he didn't have any fins. He was really grateful and came and thanked us later.

What do you love about lifeguarding?

I love the camaraderie, everyone is in it for the right reason. We are all volunteers, no big heads, everyone is supportive. I also get to go to the beach and it is a very healthy lifestyle choice.

ROD SALT (aka SALTY), police officer

Rod the Surf Lifeguard. Rod the police officer. Photos: Steen Bech

Why did you become a lifeguard?

I was quite a competitive basketballer, then triathlete (both in the 80s) and my swimming was good but so I wanted a new challenge. I loved the beach so swimming and beach led to learning to be a lifeguard.

How long have you been a lifeguard?

About 30 years now (although not continuously).

What is your most memorable rescue or lifeguarding experience?

A couple of years ago I was on a kayak and finishing a coaching session with a group of junior board paddlers at Mairangi Bay. It was cold, rain was on its way and a howling westerly was blowing hard off the shore towards Coromandel. I was keen for a hot shower but for some reason scanned out to sea and, along with my other coach Josh Green, we realised there were at least two people on boards being blown out towards the gulf.

Josh and I paddled out 500m to the two struggling on the boards. It was two boys aged about 11 and they were getting extremely tired and were unable to get back on to their boards due to the strong offshore wind. They had limited control of their boards and each time they tried to get on were tipped straight back off. I got them to rest holding on to their boards and my kayak, reassuring them while I waited for Josh to arrive. Then we sheltered them from the wind as they climbed on their boards.

We helped them back to the beach. When we got there I went looking for their parents and found them sheltering from the wind under some trees. They initially denied the boys were their children but when they saw them they had to admit they had no idea where they had been.

What do you love about lifeguarding?

I love that it provides so many amazing healthy and fulfilling opportunities and life skills. There is also sport, community, companionship, fun, friendship, giving - and all on a stunning but challenging playground, the beach and sea.

JULIE HATHAWAY, health and PE teacher at Kelston Girls College

Julie the Surf Lifeguard. Julie the health and PE teacher. Photos: Steen Bech

Why did you become a lifeguard?

I decided to become one because I coach Nippers, B1s at Piha and needed to be a lifeguard to take my group through to C2 level. Also, I knew I needed to challenge myself to do something new as I enjoy swimming and swim competitively in the pool but also love the sea and I enjoy helping people.

How long have you been a lifeguard?

About two months.

What is your most memorable rescue or lifeguarding experience?

I haven't done any rescues yet, but have done a number of preventative actions, talking to people on the beach. A lot of people don't know what Piha is like, some are from overseas and they don't know that they are to swim between the flags or don't know about the conditions on a west coast beach.

What do you love about lifeguarding?

I really enjoy being with the people on my patrol and talking to the public and educating them.


This article was originally published in the NZ Herald on January 18, 2020.