With La Niña shuffling out the door along with 2022, the red-and-yellow flags are up on our beaches and Australians are again pouring onto them in their multitudes.
And why not? Australians are residents of the world’s largest island. Eighty five per cent of us live within 50 kilometres of the coast. The climate is conducive to going in. We are beach people.
Yet the surf can be deadly. There are currents, rips and shore-breaking ‘dumpers’. There’s a rip at Bilgola so famous it has a name – ‘The Newport Express’. One minute a swimmer is outside the flags, waist deep. Next minute they’re being dragged out to sea, flailing and panicking.
Paradise can be deadly.
Step forward Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA), the greatest volunteer organisation the world has ever seen.
SLSA was formed in 1907 after community attitudes about ‘indecency’ changed – it was decided that on hot days it made sense for people to take their clothes off to swim. The problem was many people didn’t know how to swim, much less how to recognise a rip.
Those rips remain as prevalent – and as hard to spot for the inexperienced – today.
And that’s why in Australia today SLSA counts 190,000 life savers in 313 affiliated clubs who patrol 12,000 beaches and perform 11,000 rescues a year.
Many life savers are teenagers, fresh out of the excellent surf-training ground known as ‘Nippers’. Before they’re out of their teens they’ve saved lives in the surf. They’ve dealt with things few teens would: bloody gashes from surf boards; spinal injuries; what they blithely call “re-suss”, the inflation of lungs to feed oxygen to the brain’, shocking hearts back into action with a defibrillator.
Heavy stuff, right? Yet such experiences enable these young people. They go into the world equipped.
They operate jet-skis, all-terrain vehicles and inflatable rubber boats known as ‘IRBs’. They use spinal boards and tourniquet simulators. They apply first aid and and pilot drones which beam pictures back to tablets and smartphones.
They also act as ‘first responders’, on standby to support community emergencies such as flood relief.
All of which is very good. And all of which costs money. And while the SLSA’s greatest asset is its people, the equipment is complementary. But it’s not complimentary. It’s very expensive.
There is some government support for SLSA. Otherwise community clubs raise funds from donations, raffles, sponsorship and sausage sizzles.
And sometimes from a company that kicked off a pineapple cannery in Brisbane in 1947.
On Sunday, January 22 Golden Circle will host a fund-raiser at Bondi called ‘Sip & Support’, part of a roadshow that kicked off in South Maroubra on December 4, landed at Collaroy just before Christmas and is travelling through NSW and Victoria.
Collaroy Chairman of Nippers, Craig Thomas, says “it’s a fun event”.
“The kids get involved. There’s frisbees, hats, they’re getting photographs taken and enjoying cold drinks. They’ve got some fun guys running the day.
“The main aim is to raise a bit raise extra money for the local surf clubs.
“They have lots of things to give away when you make a donation,” Thomas says.
At Bondi a donation will buy you a cold Golden Circle drink and a thank-you gift. For $1 it’s a yo-yo, $5 a Frisbee, $10 a cool bucket hat. For $20 it’s all that plus an entry to win a year’s supply of Golden Circle.
Thomas got involved with surf lifesaving when his five-year-old daughter joined the Nippers at Collaroy. Originally from England, he taught himself to swim, earned his Bronze Medallion and today says he’s “very confident” navigating and identifying surf conditions. You’ll find no greater advocate for the Nippers program.
“It gives the kids a great grounding about how be safe in the ocean. It’s not a swim school by any means. But they will learn surf skills. From a young age they’re taught to swim between the flags, when not to swim, how the waves work, the ocean works, where there’s a rip, how to look for a rip.
“The end goal of Nippers is to produce the best lifesavers possible that we can. It’s a community environment and asset – it’s there for the community,” Thomas says.
Thomas says funds raised from Golden Circle’s events will be put to good use. He urges anyone at Bondi – and following that in February at Port Melbourne, Sandridge and St Kilda – to donate if they can.
“Every penny, every dollar raised is valuable to a club. Nothing will go to waste,” Thomas says.
SLSA General Manager Coastal Safety Shane Daw says the organisation is “thrilled to have the support of Golden Circle again this year, as the company embodies many of the same values as SLSA”.
“We’re especially appreciative of their generous $100,000 donation, which will support surf life-saving across the country,” Daw says.
Statistics from SLSA’s Annual Report for 2022 include.
- 2022 had the highest number of coastal drowning deaths since SLSA began collecting data in 2004. There were 208 deaths; a record 141 coastal drowning deaths.
- Most deaths are male at 89%, mainly in the 40-44 age bracket, followed by 30-39 and 65-69.
- Swimming is the number one activity undertaken at time of drowning (29%), followed by boating and personal watercraft (18%), rock fishing (11%), and snorkelling and fall-related incidents (both 8%).
- 1,000 lifesavers were deployed this year to assist with floods in NSW and QLD.
- 189,997 members across 314 affiliated SLSCs, making it the largest volunteer movement of its kind in Australia.
- Since its establishment in 1907, over 715,000 lives have been saved.
- There are over 500 million visits annually to beaches.
- More than 14.2 million Australians aged 16 and above visit the coast on average three times monthly. This is over 500 million individual visits to the coast in the past year.