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AN ICON COMES OF AGE
Sunday, 6 February 1938, a day on which five people drowned and hundreds more were rescued at Sydney's Bondi Beach, has been recognised as one of the most deadly and dramatic days in the history of Australia’s modern beach culture. It was also a day on which the importance of the Australian surf lifesaving movement became starkly evident, for without the presence of lifesavers on the beach, the death toll would likely have been much higher.
There had been rough seas throughout that day, with on-going warnings to bathers. Several minor rescues had occurred at Bondi, with many more at nearby Maroubra, and a drowning on Newcastle Beach. (End note 1) At mid-afternoon, with close to 30,000 people at Bondi, a series of three or four large heavy waves swept towards the beach in quick succession, washing around 200 bathers off a destabilised sandbank and into the strong channel - what we today call a ‘rip’.
Fortunately, there were many surf lifesavers on the beach at the time, who quickly began the considerable task of rescuing those in trouble. Using seven belt and reels (the most common form of rescue equipment from 1907 to the 1970s), alongside surf skis, rubber floats, or their own prowess in the surf, they responded immediately. (End note 1) Witnesses recounted the way panic-stricken bathers hampered the rescue effort in the water, grabbing onto and overloading the beltmen. Panicked crowds who were trying desperately to find their missing loved ones, or to help, added to the confusion, making the scene on the beach just as chaotic. A human chain had to be formed to hold back the crowds from those who were being resuscitated on the sand.
By all reports, the water was clear of bathers within about 15 minutes, but the resuscitation work on the beach continued for some time. While ambulances had been summoned, doctors who had been part of the crowd or who lived nearby were also called to assist. At the end of the day, dozens had been successfully resuscitated, two were recovering in hospital, and four were known to be dead. A fifth body was later found in the surf.
A visiting American, Dr Marshall W. Dyer, who assisted on the beach, said:
'I have never seen, and I never expect to see again, such magnificent work as was done by those lifesavers. It is the most incredible work of love in the world. Just imagine those men all going into the water without a moment’s hesitation, risking their lives and all for love. In America, all our lifesavers are paid….yesterday’s rescue was the most amazing I have ever seen.' (End note 2)
Following the incident, the term ‘Black Sunday’ was coined by the Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club (SBLSC) captain, Carl Jeppeson, in his initial statements following the incident, as published in The Sydney Morning Herald:
'It was our ‘Black Sunday’. The club has been in existence for 30 years and these are the first deaths since we have had patrols on the beach.' (End note 2)
On Black Sunday, one of the largest mass rescues in Australian beach history took place. But while it was unique in that a number of lives were lost, the actions of these surf lifesavers risking their lives to save others is not exceptional. In recognition of their courageous efforts, members of the Bondi SBLSC received a group Meritorious Award from the (then) Surf Life Saving Association of Australia (now known as Surf Life Saving Australia, or SLSA), yet this award is just one of over 350 which have been issued by SLSA since 1922. (End note 3) In the 80 years since records have been kept, Australian surf lifesavers have rescued more than 500,000 people and for every rescue surf lifesavers perform there are many more 'preventative actions' warning people of potential dangers which also help to avert possible drownings.
Since 1990, when more accurate record-keeping began, the number of rescues by surf lifesavers has fluctuated between 8,000 to 10,000 each season. There are a number of reasons for these fluctuations, mainly relating to seasonal conditions. For example, if a period of unusually hot weather corresponds with rough seas, there will be more rescues. Lower temperatures and benign seas will generally lead to fewer rescues. Preventative actions have generally increased over that time, possibly due to better training of surf lifesavers and increased reporting (table S1).
AN ESSENTIAL COMMUNITY SERVICE
There is a sad irony in the fact that the tragedy of Black Sunday took place on Bondi Beach, for it was that very same location where, almost 31 years to the day, a group of men formed Bondi SBLSC, the first of many clubs which now make up the unique Australian humanitarian organisation known as SLSA. The story of how those clubs joined together with common purpose and evolved into an organisation with more than 110,000 members across over 300 clubs who rescue more than 10,000 swimmers each year is a story of how Australians came to embrace the fact the country is indeed ‘girt by sea’. But just as crucial as the role Australian surf lifesavers have played in making the beach a safe environment, is their contribution to the volunteer movement in Australia. Indeed, the history of SLSA exemplifies the way Australians have embraced the concept of volunteerism. Today, SLSA is a growing non-government organisation (NGO) with a small team of professional staff, and volunteers playing the key role in the governance of the organisation, in addition to patrolling the nation’s beaches.
In 2005, an independent economic study conducted for SLSA found that if not for the presence of surf lifesavers on Australian beaches, 485 people would drown each year and 313 would be permanently incapacitated as a result of accidents in the surf. Such a figure would represent an unprecedented disaster, and lead to calls for immediate intervention, particularly as the actual coastal drowning rate is around 60 each year. The fact that this carnage is averted is one explanation for the iconic status of Australia’s surf lifesavers - the volunteers in red and yellow who have kept beaches safe for 100 summers.
In recognition of the centenary of surf lifesaving in Australia, 2007 has been officially declared the Year of the Surf Lifesaver. This occasion will provide a platform to engage the broader community by telling the story of how this uniquely Australian movement has evolved from its modest origins on Sydney’s beaches in the late-1890s and early-1900s to become the country’s major water safety and rescue organisation, and an exporter of innovative lifesaving techniques around the world.
ORIGINS - FROM A HANDFUL OF SYDNEY BEACHES
Australia’s first surf lifesaving clubs appeared on Sydney’s ocean beaches in 1907. By-laws which had banned bathing in daylight hours since the 1830s were repealed between 1902 and 1905, in response to the increasing popularity of surf-bathing, and a growing conviction that bathing in appropriate clothing was not an immoral act. The impact these changes had on local beach culture was swift - beachgoers entered the surf in rapidly escalating numbers. The surf was new to most surf-bathers, and many could not swim, so with its increasing popularity, came more drownings and consequent attempts at rescue.
By the summer of 1906-07, Sydney was obsessed with the question of the safety of the surf. Local councils provided lifelines on most beaches, but these were often in poor condition, or placed inappropriately on the beach. The councils, New South Wales State Government and media considered a range of suggestions to improve the safety of the beaches, including placing a wire across the beach for bathers to grab if they got into difficulty, or introducing floating buoys. (End note 4)
It was in this environment that surf lifesaving clubs first emerged, their regular patrols a welcome relief to the concerns of the local authorities and nervous bathers alike. On 18 October 1907, representatives from these clubs, now numbering seven, together with members of other interested groups including the Amateur Swimming Association and the Royal Life Saving Society, met to form the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales (SBANSW), the governing body for surf lifesaving clubs. (End note 5) In 1923, SBANSW became a national body, changing its name to the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia, but it was not until 1947 that the association had affiliated clubs from all Australian states. (End note 6)
The sheer effectiveness of surf lifesaving clubs in reducing the high number of drownings on Sydney beaches meant that surf lifesavers enjoyed a hero’s status from their first days in Australia. It was in the inter-war period of the 1920s and ‘30s that the surf lifesaver emerged as an Australian icon. The beach, a ‘symbol of Australia at pleasure', (End note 7) was not just protected by surf lifesavers; the ‘sun-bronzed’ figure came to personify the beach, his sacrifice and ‘masculine bodily perfection’ making him ideal to replace the digger and bushman as an urban representation of the ‘national type'.(End note 8) He was depicted in advertisements for everything from beer and cigarettes to soap, and even used to sell the nation, adorning Australian travel posters of the 1930s.
Central to the popular image of surf lifesaving was the carnival - colourful and dramatic events such as the ‘rescue and resuscitation’, march pasts, surf races and boat races entertained the crowds of onlookers and were hotly contested by competitors. The 1954 Royal Carnival at Bondi stands as one of the single most celebrated events in Australian surf lifesaving history. Here, surf lifesavers paraded before the young Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, who were reputedly so impressed they stayed well beyond the scheduled time. (End note 9) This carnival was the highlight of the post-war period, a fitting climax of the surf lifesaver as national icon, before the gradual decline of surf lifesaving within the Australian national consciousness.
Douglas Booth argues that SLSA ‘sank to its lowest point’ in the 1960s and ‘70s, in a cultural climate in which the beach became a site for individualised pleasure, epitomised not by the surf lifesaver but by the hedonistic surfboard rider. (End note 10) Interestingly, this is not reflected in membership statistics, as active membership generally increased throughout these decades (see graph S2). Rather, Booth contends, morale and enthusiasm declined within clubs.(End note 10) There was a sense too, within the administration that without significant change, surf lifesaving would be left behind as Australia progressed.
AN 'OLD BOYS CLUB' MOVES WITH THE TIMES
The 1970s saw a complete overhaul of the SLSA administration, as men who had been governing the association since the 1930s retired, to be replaced by a much younger generation keen on implementing change. (End note 11) Considerable funding boosts by the Whitlam Government aided the organisation in developing and implementing new equipment which would transform surf lifesaving on the beach - by the end of the 1970s, the belt and reel had been supplanted by the far more efficient helicopters, jet rescue boats, and rescue boards and tubes.
Between 1935-36 and 1977-78, board, ski and tube rescues were recorded as 'other' in SLSA's annual returns. Of particular note is the decline in traditional rescue implements such as the surf reel, surf boat and surf ski. The Inflatable Rescue Boat (IRB, or ‘rubber duckie’) is now the most prevalent rescue method. Rescue Water Craft (RWCs or ‘waverunners’) are an increasingly popular rescue device for surf lifesavers or lifeguards on solo patrols (see table S3).
The most crucial development of the 1970s, however, for both SLSA and its public image, was the debate over the role of females within surf lifesaving. Females had always been involved in surf lifesaving clubs around Australia, and from the 1970s girls were permitted to join ‘nipperettes’ groups, but women were a notable absence from the beach patrol, the public face of surf lifesaving. (End note 12) In the late-1970s, under pressure in a social climate conscious of the women’s movement and issues of gender discrimination, SLSA truly considered allowing women to become full, active members of surf lifesaving clubs for the first time. In 1980, the first women gained their surf lifesaving Bronze Medallions. (End note 13) The influx of women into the ranks of surf lifesaving in Australia was a major shift in the culture of the movement, but despite teething problems within some clubs, female active membership rapidly increased. Today, women make up more than 40% of all active surf lifesavers.
The professionalisation of parts of the surf sports circuit in the 1980s and 90s thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals with companies such as Kellogg's Australia and Uncle Toby’s meant 'Ironmen' including Grant Kenny, Guy Leech and Trevor Hendy became the public face of surf lifesaving. With a gradual reduction of corporate marketing and sponsorship budgets and the growth in other endurance and ‘extreme’ sports, the profile of surf sports has declined. In 2005 SLSA re-introduced the Coolangatta Gold, harking back to the famous 1984 film which sparked a resurgent fascination with the strength and endurance of Australian surf lifesavers.
ACROSS THE SEAS - LIFESAVING INTERNATIONALLY
More than 400,000 people drown each year, making it the second leading cause of unintentional injury death globally after road traffic injuries. (End note 14) The reduction of this drowning rate is, therefore, an imperative for governments and NGOs the world over. At the opening of the 21st century, SLSA plays a key role in the development of surf lifesaving in the Asia-Pacific region, continuing a legacy it began in the 1920s when several overseas organisations first expressed interest in the methods and equipment of Australian surf lifesavers. SLSA has had close links with surf lifesaving bodies in South Africa, New Zealand, and the United States of America (including Hawaii) since its first overseas tours in the 1930s, but it was not until the formation of the International Life Saving Federation (ILS) in 1994 that SLSA became involved with an organisation which represents water safety bodies from around the globe. Australian delegates have played an important part in the administration and governance of this body, and Australian surf lifesavers have dominated international lifesaving sports since its inception in the 1980s. (End note 15)
SURF LIFESAVING AND VOLUNTEERISM
While volunteerism is and always has been central to surf lifesaving in Australia, the body was not founded for purely altruistic reasons. Rather, the initial meeting of the association was called to discuss opposition to proposed ordinances which would force men to wear an additional pleated ‘skirt’ over their costumes. The founding members of the SBANSW hoped to use the association to increase and legitimise their lobbying powers relating to any aspects of beach governance, particularly important in a climate when surf-bathing was still threatened by moralists. (End note 16) Hence the new body’s main purpose was to ‘regulate and promote matters relative to surf-bathing.' (End note 17)
While the SBANSW governed surf lifesaving, and oversighted the activities of existing clubs and formation and affiliation of new ones, they were also involved in matters relating more generally to the governance of the beaches. They had representatives on both the Surf Bathing Committee of 1910-11, and Shark Menace Advisory Committee of 1935, both of which reported directly to the New South Wales Government. In addition, they lobbied the Government and local councils on other issues, and were instrumental in raising action in 1914 against the Sydney City Council’s dumping of garbage at sea, resulting in rubbish washing up on the beaches. (End note 18)
After 100 years of SLSA, the volunteer remains at the heart of the organisation, which now has a steadily increasing membership of more than 112,000 members, spread across 305 surf lifesaving clubs in every state and the Northern Territory. This is despite a strategic recognition of the need for SLSA to re-position itself with government and the community as the pre-eminent authority on aquatic safety in Australia. Such a re-positioning inevitably requires an increased level of professional management in order to be effective. SLSA’s own full-time staff has almost doubled in the past ten years to almost 30 personnel, with others in the state centres, branches (in New South Wales and Queensland) and some of the larger clubs.
Demographic shifts dictate that in order for SLSA to retain and reinforce its relevance, it needs to be providing lifesaving and other services around the clock. This has led to SLSA focussing on the provision of ‘lifeguard’ and ‘support’ services around the country. Although the terms ‘lifesaver’ and ‘lifeguard’ are sometimes used interchangeably, in Australia a surf ‘lifesaver’ is a trained volunteer who operates on weekends and public holidays during the ‘beach season’ (which varies across the country). A ‘lifeguard’ is either employed by, or contracted to, local government or other land managers and generally provide beach safety services at other times, depending on local requirements. SLSA currently provides around 70% of lifeguard services around the country. ‘Support services’ are rapid-response units who use motorised equipment such as rescue water craft (or ‘waverunners’), jet rescue boats, offshore rescue boats and helicopter rescue services. Despite these significant strategic shifts towards professionalism, the volunteer surf lifesaver wearing his or her red and yellow quartered cap will continue to provide the heart and soul of the organisation.
CHALLENGES AHEAD - REMAINING RELEVANT TO THE AUSTRALIAN COMMUNITY
The clash between locals and visitors which led to the ‘Cronulla riots’ of December 2005, was as much about ‘ownership’ of the beach as a clash of ethnicity.(End note 19) Contests over beach space have been a constant in Australian beach history - the 19th century witnessed debates which pitted private interests against public access to the foreshores, and in the early-20th century beachgoers protested the placing of merry-go-rounds and other man-made structures on the beach, protests which were echoed 100 years later by those who opposed the volleyball stadium on Bondi Beach during the 2000 Sydney Olympics. (End note 20)
Nevertheless, the Cronulla riots caused SLSA to re-examine its approach to remaining relevant to the sections of the Australian community who had been exposed to the beach and beach culture only relatively recently. Although increasing the ethnicity of its membership had been a strategic objective for the organisation since 2000, SLSA had been hampered by lack of data on cultural background for the simple reason the information is not collected in any systematic way. Despite innovative programmes at a number of individual clubs, lack of financial resources had limited SLSA’s ability to develop and fund sustainable initiatives. Following the riots, the Australian Government, along with SLSA and a number of other organisations, agreed on a strategic approach to this issue. The resulting programme - On The Same Wave - will see specialist managers work with culturally and ethnically diverse communities to improve harmony on the country’s beaches in a variety of ways.
In much the same way as the organisation eventually welcomed females as full members, and has prospered as a result, surf lifesaving must seize the opportunity to break down the preconceptions that prevail about the movement. The truth is that anyone can become a surf lifesaver, irrespective of age, gender, cultural background and, interestingly, swimming ability. The fact that this will seem counter-intuitive to many Australians is a demonstration of how far the movement has yet to travel.
This issue, and the response, is symptomatic of SLSA’s dilemma as it continues to evolve in the 21st century. Significant financial resources will be required in order for SLSA to attain and retain its desired position as the pre-eminent authority on aquatic safety in Australia. The organisation’s current funding comes from a variety of sources including sponsorship, grants and fundraising. Over the past decade, much effort has been devoted to developing and diversifying SLSA’s income. The organisation must continue to develop funding sources which are less susceptible to external factors, as the work of saving lives in the water continues, regardless of the state of the economic cycle.
The Year of the Surf Lifesaver in 2007 provides all Australians with the opportunity to reflect on their relationship with the country’s coastal areas, particularly the beaches and beach-side communities. For SLSA, it is an opportunity to celebrate 100 years of service to the community (see table S4), but most importantly, to consolidate its position to ensure it can go on saving lives in the water for the next 100 years.
1. Newspapers - Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph, 7 February 1938. Back
2. Newspaper - Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 1938. Back
3. For a full list of all meritorious awards issued by SLSA, see Chris Conrick, Meritorious Award Register, Ed Jaggard (ed.) Between the Flags: One hundred summers of Australian surf lifesaving, Sydney, UNSW Press, (2006), pp. 240-247. Back
4. Manly Council minutes, 12 September 1902, 17 November 1903; Randwick Council minutes, 5 February 1907; Waverley Council minutes, 9 January, 1906; Letter John C Hume to Minister for Lands, 1 February 1907, SRNSW: Miscellaneous Branch: CGS 8258, 07/2048. Back
5. The SBANSW foundation clubs were Bondi, Bronte, Coogee, Manly, Maroubra, North Bondi and Tamarama. The United Wanderers and Woollahra Swimming Clubs were also represented. Back
6. The Association changes its name to Surf Life Saving Australia in 1991. Back
7. Rickard, John, Australia: A Cultural History, London : New York : Longman, 1988, p. 192. Back
8. Saunders, Kay, 'Specimens of Superb Manhood', Journal of Australian Studies, March 1998 no. 56, p. 97; White, Inventing Australia, Sydney : George Allen & Unwin, 1981, p. 155; Cushing, Nancy & Huntsman, Leone, ‘A National Icon: Surf Lifesaving And Australian Society And Culture’ in Jaggard (ed.), Between the Flags, p. 10. Back
9. Ziegler, Oswald, (ed.), The Royal visit to New South Wales, official record: the visit of Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, February-March 1954 (popular edition) 1954. Back
10. Booth, Doug, ‘Clubbies, managing pleasure and discipline’ in Jaggard (ed.) Between the Flags, p. 77. Back
11. Jaggard, Ed, ‘From Beach to boardroom’ in Jaggard (ed.) Between the Flags, p. 65. Back
12. Jaggard, Ed, Australian Surf Lifesaving and the ‘Forgotten members’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 30, no. 112, April 1999. Back
13. The Bronze Medallion is the basic qualification for all active surf lifesavers. To be eligible for a Bronze Medallion, a candidate must be over 15 years, have a reasonable standard of physical fitness and be proficient in basic first aid, resuscitation as well as surf rescue practices. Active surf lifesavers must pass an annual proficiency test in order to continue patrolling. Back
14. World Health Organisation (WHO), Department of Injuries and Violence prevention, Facts About Injuries: Drowning. Back
15. Caroline Ford & Ed Jaggard ‘Spreading the word: Surf lifesaving overseas’ in Jaggard (ed.) Between the Flags. Back
16. Booth, Doug, Australian Beach Cultures: The history of sun, sand and surf (2001) Frank Cass, London. Back
17. Foundation Meeting SBANSW minutes, 18 October 1907, SLSA Archives. Back
18. Waverley Council minutes, 3 November 1914. Back
19. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December 2005. Back
20. Caroline Ford, draft PhD dissertation, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW. Back