Surf lifesavers are an iconic part of the Australian coastal landscape, and with summer in full swing and the beaches full, their essential work is more important than ever.
The coastline is the Australian continent’s veranda. Literally and figuratively. Some 85 per cent of our total population live within one hour’s drive from the coast, so it’s no wonder the beach and the people who protect it are icons of Australian culture. These are our lifeguards.
The concept of lifeguarding is originally Australian. It officially began in 1907 when the government relaxed laws which prohibited daylight bathing on Australian beaches and a series of drownings at Sydney beaches followed. Consequently, volunteer groups of men were trained and patrolled the beaches as lifesavers. These men formed Australia’s first official lifeguard clubs.
Today lifeguarding has spread around the world. In Australia’s it’s been popularised through television shows like Bondi Rescue, and while professional lifeguards patrol many of Australia’s beaches, lifeguarding remains mostly voluntary in nature.
One of Yallingup’s first unofficial lifeguards was Pete McDonald. Pete grew up at Perth’s City Beach, and was a lifesaver from an early age, before he started surfing. Pete travelled around the world and found work as a lifeguard in South Africa, before he moved to Yallingup and built a house in the mid 70s.
By the 1990s, Yallingup’s few fishing and surfing shacks had expanded to a burgeoning tourist town, and Pete says with the influx of visitors came an increase of incidents down at the notoriously dangerous Rabbit Hill beach.
“There were families that would come down to the beach, and you know, fair enough, they don’t know the beach and the lay out of it, so they’d go swimming just off the granny pool. There is a really bad rip that runs off of there, and as soon as they go off that bank they’re getting taken straight out to sea,” Pete says.
“I remember one evening I was on the beach and I’d just been for my swim and I saw my eldest son waving to me from out the back. He was with an old fella, an English guy, who had seen his kids out there and gone for a swim and got dragged out. My son gave me his board, and I went and dragged him in. He was lucky, and he just said ‘I didn’t realise what was happening to me.’”
The incidents increased in frequency, and Pete realised something needed to be done before tragedy became a common occurrence. Together with fellow Yallingup resident Dennis Cuthbert, and Yallingup Residents Association president Laurie Sleuter, they lobbied the Busselton Shire for action.
“You know, things were starting to happen as far tourism goes.You’re telling people to come to this beautiful beach, and suddenly […] they’re getting sucked out to sea and up the other end. It’s not a good policy,” Pete says.
The Busselton Shire teamed up with Surf Life Saving WA, and dispatched two lifeguards – one at Smiths Beach, and one at Yallingup Beach for the duration of the peak holiday season. Pete and the Yallingup Residents Association assisted the lifeguards for their inaugural seasons.
“Every year, they used to borrow our buggy. We had that for any rescues or beach work, so they used that over the summer. Now they’ve got their own vehicles. It’s improved a lot over the years. One of the early lifeguards, Matt, he was saying, it’s not about thinking now, it’s about thinking in 10 years time. How many people are going to be here, how many overseas tourists are going to be in the water? And he’s right, it’s totally what’s happened, and we’re lucky to have lifeguards here today,” Pete says.
Today, the lifeguards around Yallingup can be split into two categories. There are the lifesavers – volunteer lifeguards from the Smiths Beach Surf Lifesaving Club who patrol only on Saturdays and Sundays – and the lifeguards, paid professionals provided by SLSWA.
The Smiths Beach Surf Lifesaving Club was founded eight years ago, and it runs the quintessential Nipper lifeguard program for local residents. This is where all lifeguards begin, and it’s an integral part of Australian culture and the community spirit, says SBSLC president, Keith Warrick.
“It is the quintessential Sunday morning really, kids on the beach in their ages groups, learning through sport. The sport is actually born out of techniques and the art of lifesaving, board racing, techniques, all those sorts of things,” he says. “It was born out of the desire from the parent group in the local area to provide a platform to educate kids about the dangers and risks in the ocean. The parents knew the benefit to the kids in the community to have a surf club.”
After graduating through the Nippers program, some lifesavers go on to paid lifeguard positions with the state body, Surf Life Saving WA. Many continue to ply their trade around the world, like Will Dwyer. Will is now Operations Supervisor for SLSWA, and this year will be his sixth season patrolling the beaches around the City of Busselton.
Will has also spent Northern Hemisphere summers working in England and Denmark, and says Australian lifeguards are highly respected, and ambassadors of our culture. “Shows like Bondi Rescue have helped created this perception of Australian lifeguards, and a great respect and understanding of what we do,”Will says.
“It’s pretty cruisy, most days, but you hold the responsibility of people’s lives in your hands so you do need to constantly be on guard and on the lookout for danger.”
Will says natural hazards are the greatest risks around Margaret River beaches, and warned beachgoers to be aware of the conditions and of their own swimming abilities this summer.
A lot has changed since the early days of lifeguarding in Western Australia, says Pete McDonald. He remembers the great rivalries between clubbies and surfers, which are notorious in Australian folklore.
“The clubbies had that more footballing mentality back then, they were pretty gung-ho. Whereas surfing was more of an individual thing. Back then in the city, there was an area for swimming and an area for surfing, and if you were surfing and you crossed into the swimming area there would be trouble. The culture has changed, it’s nothing like it used to be.
“These days, lots of people surf and lifeguard as well. It’s really come a long way.”
Image Credit: Elements