Surf Lifesaving NZ history: The guardians of the beaches

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Former Waitakere City mayor and life-long surf lifesaver Bob Harvey at Karekare Beach. Photo / NZ Herald

By: Amelia Wade
Reporter, NZ 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.

In a bach by the iron sands, five rugby players were sitting around a keg and a bowl of sausages when they conceived the Piha Surf Lifesaving club.

People were drowning unnecessarily in the turbulent west coast waters - the men wanted to do something and in 1934, they built a clubhouse and imported a surf boat from Sydney.

Their club colours were red for the sunset, green for the bush and black for the iron sands.

The Piha club in 1935. Photo / File

Around the country, other surf lifesaving clubs had cropped up at popular or dangerous beaches after the first clubs were established in Wellington in 1910.

Today a day at the beach is rarely without the red and yellow flags and a team of diligent lifesavers' ears pricked for a cry for help, eyes focused on the water. Many of which have given up their time to keep others safe.

And for life member of the Karekare club, former Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey, there's much more than meets the eye.

Former Waitakere City mayor and life-long surf lifesaver Bob Harvey at Karekare Beach. Photo / NZ Herald

"It's not all about tanned and bronzed bodies, it's about amazing tenacity, courage and sheer guts of men and women.

"It's the history of New Zealand, in some ways."

The beginning

As our ancestors threw off the shackles of Victorian conservatism, they left their segregated swimming baths to brave the waves that crash on our coastline.

But pools don't have rips, tides and ever-changing surf and our inexperience meant too many lost their lives.

Over in Australia they had the same problem and the need for lifeguards became increasingly apparent. The world's first surf-lifesaving club was founded on Bondi in 1906.

Following Australia's lead, bathing associations cropped up and the four first surf-lifesaving clubs were set up in 1910 at New Brighton, Lyall Bay and Worser in Wellington and the Pacific Surf Club in Dunedin.

Wellington lifesavers in 1959. Photo / File

Dubbed by many as "the best import from Australia we've ever had", Kiwi lifesavers used the skills, knowledge, equipment and even the uniforms of their counterparts across The Ditch.

One of the vital pieces of equipment was the "reel and line" where one of the team wore a belt attached to a line on a reel and swam out to the person in trouble. Once the beltman reached the person, the team would reel the pair in.

And as communities suffered spates of drownings at their local beaches, locals set up lifesaving clubs to make sure it didn't happen again, said Surf Life Saving New Zealand chief executive, Paul Dalton.

"It was a community response to a local tragedy."

By the 1930s, surf-lifesaving clubs were well established around the country with strapping young men in their newly-fashionable swimming trunks watching the sea.

And as the former chief of the organisation, Bob Harvey, said, this caused quite the flutter.

"The beach patrols became the centre of attention.

"Lifesavers, tribal young men in a new age of sexual attraction, became defined by their heroic role."

And as with anything athletic, with the clubs quickly came competitions.

Rescue and Resuscitation Surf team bringing in the patient at St Kilda 1941. Photo / File

First came the Wigram Shield and the Nelson Shield established in 1911 and 1915 respectively.

Then after the national New Zealand Surf Life Saving Association in 1932, competitions with Australia started five years later.

From teas to surf - women take over patrol

During the World War I, men were conscripted to join the European fronts and forced to leave their posts watching over the shoreline.

"Then along came the women, and, boy, were they good," Harvey said.

Although when the men returned, they wanted their jobs back - the women were no longer needed, and put back on fundraising duties, baking cakes and making teas.

Reels Life-Saving Carnival at Bethels. Photo / File

There was a strong feeling that the women couldn't handle the surf, reel and lines or the responsibilities.

But the women said "bugger that,'' said Harvey, and set up their own ladies clubs and took on the men in the competitions, often winning the hallowed prize of a pair of mens socks each.

I was really in awe of them. I was in awe of their courage in saying "if you don't want us as lifeguards, we'll start our own club". And they were fantastic swimmers.

Eventually, the women's clubs merged with the men and by the 1970s pressure increased to accept women as equal members of society.

The defining saves

As New Zealand forged itself as a nation, so too did clubs as the lifeguards were the first responders to marine disasters.

On the stormy day the Wahine ran aground on the Barrett Reef in 1968, many could only stand by and watch in horror.

But the lifeguards at the Worser Bay Surf Club dragged their recently-donated Miss Europa rescue rowboat into the massive swell and saved as many as they could.

The conditions were bad and those in the water were being dragged eastwards. It was unsafe for the lifeguards to stay in churning seas, so they had to abandon their mission.

It still frustrates many of them to this day they couldn't do more to help.

And while the tragedy is still painful for New Zealand and is counted among our nation's darkest days, it did cement SLSNZ's importance in Kiwis' psyche.

The Wahine sinking cemented the importance of lifesaving in the Kiwi psyche. Photo / File

Europa, now BP, also saw the organisation's value and came onboard as a major donor - a relationship that continues today, when it sponsors all new IRBs.

And then there was Ken Morse, who rescued 30 people in one day.

On a rainy morning in Waikanae in 1941, the river suddenly burst like a dam and spewed into its mouth at the sea, pulling people into the deep.

Morse was on duty and called to his fellow lifeguards on duty, who set about swimming out to them with the reel and lines.

Meanwhile, Morse swim out and pulled them to a waiting boat.

In all, 34 people were saved - 30 of them by Morse - and no lives were lost.

Every club had incredible stories of heroism and bravery, often against all odds - the rescues over the last 100 years have been absolutely astonishing," said Harvey.

Shark attacks

The dreaded circling fin is an unfortunate - though often overstated - reality of swimming in New Zealand's waters and make for a horrid rescue for lifeguards.

Since the first recorded attack in Wellington Harbour in 1852, there have been 12 fatal attacks on swimmers and at least one lifeguard. As well, at least 50 non-fatal attacks.

Dunedin lifeguard Leslie Jordan's last words were: "There's a shark, a shark's got me."

The 19-year-old's leg was ripped off during a training at St Clair Beach in 1964. His fellow lifeguards tried to save him and dragged him ashore, but he soon died of his injuries.

Unfortunately, he was not the first or last New Zealander to be attacked by the underwater predators.

A new era

Over the black sands and powerful swells of Muriwai in the 70s, the dawn of the new era of lifesaving developed.

The reel and lines were becoming outdated and had their limitations, with only 440m of length.

Linesmen in action at Muriwai in 1964. Photo / File

"If you got to the end of the line and you couldn't reach the person, that was it - the person died," Harvey said.

Five district representatives had travelled to Southern California in 1968 to study their methods and bring back learnings, like neoprene tubes, rescue buoys and single-man rescues.

Among them was president of the Muriwai Lifeguard Service, John "JT" Thomas, who upon his return changed his club's mindset from 'lifesaving" to "lifeguarding". Rescues were long and exhausting so the shift towards prevention made sense.

"We moved away from being trapped by the length of the line - to this amazing new technique of being able to be able to go out and grab someone quickly with the belt and line," Harvey said.

But nothing transferred lifesaving as much as rubber ducks - known by the layman as Inflatable Rescue Boats (IRBs).

IRBs were introduced in the late 1970s. Photo / File

Developed for the Piha club in 1978, the Arancia IRB prototype was used within hours of being dropped off for rescuing someone stranded on the rocks.

Now an essential piece of equipment at every lifesaving club in New Zealand - and most of the world - the IRB allows guards to skim over the waves and reach anyone in trouble in a matter of seconds.

The new era also heralded the world's first-ever surf rescue helicopter.

Helicopter pilot George Sobiecki had some free-time coming up over the summer of 1970 and went to the Auckland Surf Life Saving Association with an idea:

Why don't you use a chopper without doors so lifesavers can drop straight into the surf with their rescue tubes?

''And with that we invented a new age of surf lifesaving," he said.

A sponsorship package was pulled together and 11 rescues took place over the summer season.

Though a few hiccups with side mirrors and visibility ironed out, the idea proved both an innovation and a success. A group of 32 lifeguards spent the winter training in a special squad and over the next summer, they rescued almost 40 people.

The initiative is now almost in its fiftieth year and known as the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Trust, the service is an integral part of rescues around Auckland, from car crashes and sick children, to pulling people from the waves.

In it for life

This summer, just as he has done for the last for the last 64 years Harvey will be out on patrol at his beloved Karekare - even though he recently celebrated his 79th birthday.

And he's not the only one.

"I'm a freak of nature, but there's quite a few of us around the country.

"As the slogan says, 'In it for life' - and I sure have been."

Generations of saving lives

One time when Mick Kearney's father was rescuing a girl, her bikini top fell off so her mother started whacking him.

The story is one of many that three generations of lifeguards have collected over more than 100 years standing watch over the waters.

Kearney's grandfather, William, was one of the first to get qualified as a lifeguard in 1910 in Napier, and he has the certificate to prove it.

Since then, the Kearneys have all stepped up for duty.

Kearney's father, Bruce, joined the Eastern United club in Browns Bay on Auckland's North Shore where all his children joined as Nippers.

"But there wasn't a need at Browns Bay and they were short at Piha so we moved out there."

At age 14, Kearney joined the United North Piha Lifeguard Service and has been involved ever since.

His involvement with the club has shaped his life - he has a PhD in marine biology and has worked as an environmental advisor in Vanuatu on-top of his lifetime as a lifeguard.

And now his own son is looking forward to following in his family's footsteps.

"The best thing is hanging out at the beach with my friends and helping people."


This article was originally published in the NZ Herald on January 4, 2020.