'Someone had got swept out and I felt sick' - Lifeguards open up about patrolling Auckland's notorious west coast beaches

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Patrol Captain Jacob Rennie of the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club on patrol at Piha South Beach on the first
day of the year. Video / Dean Purcell

By: Tom Dillane
Tom Dillane is a reporter at the New Zealand Herald


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.

Picture a morning hang-out session of surf-stoked local grommets and you'll have something of the vibe of the unusually overcast scene.

Relaxing on the dunes above Piha's south beach, trivialities of the previous night's antics played out in loose conversation, as they all gaze forward at the waves and not each other.

"What are you doing for the rest of the day Ollie?"

"Cruising. Getting a feel for it ..."

"Yeah I don't know why Tom didn't just drive."

"I know why, it's because his car is diesel ..."

"I still remember when I worked down there, him cruising around with his lifeguard rashie. It was literally falling to pieces, a hundred years old, driving his quadie, no helmet ..."

"Beach sprints mate. Ollie would work you in a beach sprint."


"Have you seen him at touch. He'll go straight past you, throw you a keen dummy."

Jono, Doube, Mary-Kate, Tom, Eddie, Ollie and Jacob sitting on the basic wooden gazebo - or rather Piha south's "lifeguard tower"- surveying the mild two-foot swell.

Surf lifesaver Jacob Rennie talks about the harsh realities of failed resuscitations and body recovery. Video / Tom Dillane

Members of the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club on patrol at Piha South Beach on the first day of the year. Photo / Dean Purcell

It's New Year's Day, and this is the notorious West Auckland beach's surf live saving team for the day.

Across the Auckland region, 114 lifeguards in total are doing the same thing. Some paid, most not.

But even if you listened with your eyes closed to their bright red and yellow uniforms you'd notice after a while, purely by the tone of voice, that the talk is not entirely social. There's a strain of quiet control.

The harsh, partially incoherent blaring of the radios encased in plastic waterproof satchels is a constant reminder of why.

"Someone want to go PA that dude there, just right down that south corner, kind of got a kicking board ... Keep an eye on those two out there Doube, moving across. You see em?"

"Oi, Eddie! I think they were surfing before, those in the wetties but not sure. They're back in now."

They have people's lives in their sunglass-tinted sights and they're well aware of it.

The "tower" of Piha's Surf Lifesaving Club on the first morning of 2020. Photo / Dean Purcell

How could they not be, to listen to some of the personal stories.

"I was on jet ski down at Bethells and we heard over surf comms they'd pulled someone out of the water from the rocks," 23-year-old senior lifeguard Jacob Rennie recalls.

"So me and my mate went down there and helped out.

"It wasn't a successful resuscitation. It was pretty crappy to be honest, pretty upsetting, and they do take a while to get over."

It can get worse.

"I mean I've done more body recoveries than resuscitations," Rennie says.

"After someone's gone missing, finding them. I've been lucky with a few of them, we've found them within an hour and a half.

"But if you start finding them a day later, or 10 days later, it's pretty rough to deal with. The decomposition's pretty horrific."

Lifeguard Eddie Reddington and what is a common risk sign for lifeguards - the inflatable. Photo / Dean Purcell

When questioned on why police can't deal with that, Rennie downplays the obligation they take on.

"Yeah it's a grey area because we're not really trained in it, as such," he says.

"It's more just something we can do if we have to, and the police won't really go out on the water, especially out on that surf line. So it's not our responsibility, but we'll do it."

An unnervingly confronting "grey area" for lifeguards who start off as young as 14. Although body recovery has recently been restricted to those over 18.

All this, and they have to buy their own uniforms.

Surf Life Saving NZ is without any direct government funding.

Lifeguard Eddie Reddington of the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club. Photo / Dean Purcell

Patrol Captain Jacob Rennie of the Piha Surf Lifesaving Club on patrol at Piha South Beach. Photo / Dean Purcell

This is the accumulated low points of eight years of lifeguarding across Auckland beaches for Rennie.

Yet the overall stats are far more damningly frequent than that.

Three people have drowned along the west coast of Auckland and Northland since Christmas.

That kind of news comes through in real-time on radio to the lifeguards.

Rennie says he basically now knows the outcome of an emergency call that "someone's gone under the water" from the moment he hears the specific location of coast it's reported.

"For me personally, I know depending on the conditions and where it is what the outcome is going to be," he says

"Say on Christmas Day, I heard the radio call for the Uretiti drowning.

"I heard someone had got swept out and I felt sick. I almost went back to vomit.

"I just knew the way the call came through, and that it's happened there before, what the possible outcome was probably going to be, and it ended up that way."

Twenty-three year old Jacob Rennie has been an Auckland lifeguard for eight years, and says he'll
always continue to do it. Photo / Dean Purcell

But Rennie says if they're doing their job right it should never get to the point where they have to pull someone out of the water.

It's all about prevention and communication, or "preventative action".

"PAs" as they constantly instruct each other while pointing at some usually blissfully ignorant swimmer - wandering casually outside the flags or disregarding them.

"PA the mum and kid past the south flag," Rennie will buzz through to the two shoreline guards constantly watching and gesturing to the mass of swimmers.

The shore guards are like traffic wardens directing a hundred cars dispersing in every direction.

By now Rennie notices clear signs of high risk swimmers.

Kids and the elderly are the obvious focal points, but inflatables such as the huge popsicle one young woman drags across the sand today are danger signs.

For those venturing out back to the surf break, boogie boards without fins, and rented surf boards are obvious triggers.

"Tourists when they're going in in their full clothes are another sign," Rennie says.

"Like if you're going to the beach you generally bring togs if you're going to swim. So they're probably not used to New Zealand surf conditions, especially the west coast which gets pretty gnarly."

Patrolling the shore at Piha's south beach on Auckland's west coast. Photo / Dean Purcell

And yet among all the heavy responsibility and exposure to death, the group of them on Piha's south beach are there for the fun, the camaraderie.

Rennie has worked the job 9-5 weekdays during the summer months on his uni holiday and will regularly volunteer an extra day on the weekend at his home surf life saving club of Mairangi Bay.

"We all look after each other and I'm always going to do lifeguarding, because I enjoy it," he says.

"Coming down the beach, it's a cool place to work. The surf's fun.

"It just sucks when you can't prevent it [drownings]. Because if we're here we can prevent everything, but we can't be everywhere and people take risks.

"A lot of the drownings around New Zealand are at unpatrolled beaches.

"But if people are swimming between the flags they're going to go home safely."


This article was originally published in the NZ Herald on January 5, 2020.