Sunday, November 30, 2008

Weekend edition: surf lifesaving as a spectator sport

I am a volunteer surf lifesaver at Bronte Beach.  I used to be at North Bondi (one of the softest but most crowded Sydney beaches) but moved my allegiance when I moved to Bronte.  It scares me though because Bronte Beach, whilst having a reputation as a family beach – and a multi-cultural hang-out – is actually quite dangerous.  A large amount of water comes in (usually on the north end of the beach) and cycles out in a fierce rip.  [For the uninitiated a rip is a current going straight out to sea.]  The rip is a “Kieren Perkins rip” because on days like today you would need to be Kieren Perkins to swim in against it.

Anyway I had a patrol on Saturday afternoon.  It was quiet – very quiet because it rained in the morning and rain was predicted in the afternoon.  I spent my time chatting to a lifesaver who I had never previously met – but who was a lot fitter than me.  (He rowed for Australia at the Beijing Olympics.)  

Sunday afternoon was different.  The beach was crowded, the surf was up and the rip was strong.  

I said Bronte had a reputation as a family beach – and so it does – but for two main reasons:

  1. there is a large grassed area where large family groups (extended newer-Australian families, drunk groups of younger Anglo-Saxons) have barbeques, play cricket or kick soccer balls, and

  2. propped against the southern edge of the beach is a big rock hole which is very child-friendly at low tide.  Bulldozers have dragged the rocks out of the centre – and left a beautiful and calm sandy swimming hole – known ubiquitously as the “bogey hole”.  You can see a picture of it in calm conditions here.  

I was down the beach with my son (aged 8), a friend of similar age and the neighbourhood six year old.  The surf was up so we were playing in the bogey hole.  The kids were playing with some other 8 year olds who had come with an extended group of Muslim Australians.  I wound up chatting with one of the dads.  The Muslim group was racially mixed but highly identifiable because the women were wearing head-clothes.  Even then there was a range of hijab – black African muslims in form fitting jeans but loose (and hence obscuring) upper-body clothing and fairly full hijab, and a European Muslim (probably Bosnian) wearing a scarf loosely over her shoulders but not obscuring any of her hair.  The men told me they had come from Belmore – a suburb of Sydney with a large mosque and a double-digit percentage of Arabic speakers.

The boys would have fitted neatly in anywhere.  They were wearing board shorts, playing a little loudly and splashing water on each other - and they spoke in English and Arabic.  Some of the women were throwing sand at them as they played in the bogey hole.  

Two of the fathers climbed through the rocks that sheltered the bogey hole from the wild surf (the waves had 8-10 foot faces).  The tide was rising and the dads enjoyed the water splashing around them.  At least they enjoyed it until they didn’t – as the waves were getting just a little rough.

I wasn’t the only person that noticed.  Two lifesavers (clubbies) were also watching from the shore.  They tried climbing around the rocks to talk to the men – but they thought better of it and snuck back to the beach.  

I should explain "clubbies".  The beaches of Sydney mostly have amateur surf-lifesaving clubs.  However the amateurs only patrol the beaches on weekends and public holidays.  They also have professional life-guards.  The clubbies wear red-and-yellow.  The life-guards (almost all former clubbies) wear blue.  The lifeguards are all amazingly fit and competent.  The lifesavers (clubbies) vary – from overweight middle-aged finance executives (me) to super-fit amateurs (the Olympic rower I was chatting with on Saturday).  

Anyway the two clubbies were on it – as the obvious happened.

The two blokes – now getting quite uncomfortable as bigger surf washed them against the rocks – decided to swim for it.  They swam out to sea.

The only problem was that they wound up immediately in a very strong rip – and it was obvious within seconds that they were going to need rescuing.  There were two lifesavers.  They immediately radioed back to the tent what was happening and one clubby got into the surf on a yellow rescue board.  The other stayed on the shore watching.  By this stage I was watching – along with twenty others – quite enjoying the spectacle.  I tapped the wife of one the victims on the shoulder – a woman of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin in a fairly formal hijab.  I pointed out her husband needed rescuing.  She didn’t believe I was talking about her husband – and ignored me.  She apologised later – when she was getting over her utter panic.  

Anyway a lifeguard (blue shirt – blue rescue board) ran in (he heard the radio) and got out in maybe 20 seconds.  Some surfers had also managed to get to our hapless victims.  The clubby cheered me up by proving my inadequate surf-rescue board skills were not alone.  Clubby number 1 lost the board as he was trying to get victim number 2 onto the board.  The lifeguard came in with victim number 1.  [It turns out later than number 2 was a competent swimmer who did not understand rips and would have drowned eventually, number 1 could barely swim and would have drowned rapidly without rescue.  Victim 2 held onto the clubby 1 whilst they both awaited something that looked like rescue.]

The rescue board washed up on the beach – and I was sprinting down the beach ready to grab it and do some heroics of my own.  Another clubby beat me to it – and as he was on patrol and in uniform it really was his turn.  He went out.  I grabbed a rescue tube (just some floatation) and decided if clubby number 2 was going to have troubles that I would jump into the rip and ride the same current out as they had.  I was not needed (for which I was grateful).  

Only about this time did the Muslim women realise that their men-folk were in mortal danger.  There must have been 50 people watching this as the best entertainment all day before the women realised there was a problem.  But once the Muslim women realised there was a problem there was plenty of commotion.

The two blokes were ferried into shore.  The lifeguard (who had gone out again in case he was needed) surfed in gracefully on his knees on a very large wave.  He made me feel inadequate as to my rescue board skills all over again.  

I chatted freely to the woman in the formal hijab.  She was shocked – and told me how common drowning was in her home country.  I explained to her that the clubby that rescued her husband was a volunteer – she had no idea.  She was amazed that volunteers would “risk their lives” like that.  For a competent lifesaver there isn’t that much risk – but the action is still of volunteers savings lives.

The last I saw the whole group of Muslim families – maybe 20 people in all – walked up to the lifesavers’ tent to say thank you.  

A few years ago there were race riots at Cronulla beach with drunken Anglo louts beating up on Maronite and Muslim Lebanese Australians.  The proximate cause was a Lebanese lout assaulting a lifesaver after the lifesaver had told the man not to play soccer on the beach (which was crowded with passive sunbathers).  The lifesaving clubs however didn’t cover themselves in glory either – with one racist younger lifesaver having written on his body the line “we crew here – they flew here”.  

But today made me proud.  It made me proud of my surf club and made me proud of Australia.  It also made it patently clear that there are ways that we can coexist – that Muslim/Western relations do not have to be all bad.  And that us Westerners would risk our lives for a couple of wayward Muslim blokes just as we would for each other.



Isam Laroui said...

Great story. These are the kind of interactions that build true acceptance (and not just tolerance) on both sides.
Just curious, did you guys put up signs warning of the rip tide problem? Some signs even have self-explanatory drawings on them for people who need visuals.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for the piece.

One of the most important next steps from that chapter should be for surf clubs to invite Muslims to assist in the lifeguarding.

John Hempton said...

Follow ups: After the riots at Cronulla a very large amount of effort went into attracting Muslim lifesavers. It was difficult to do - but some effort even went into a muslim-female acceptable life-guard uniform and I gather there are a couple of takers.

You can see the stories here...],22049,22837004-5001021,00.html

That said I have never met one of the Muslim lifesavers - and there have been ugly touches such as far-right political candidates leaflet dropping against their existence...

As for the dangerous current sign - yes there is one there - but at Bronte it is only in English. At Bondi (which is far more popular with tourists) it is English, Chinese, Arabic, French and Spanish. Despite that it works surprisingly poorly.

The reason it works poorly is optical. Waves break where it shallow - so the surf looks dangerous where it shallow.

When there is a rip current the rip washes all the sand out - making the water deep. The waves do not break there. So the place with the rip looks calmest and hence often looks the safest place to swim. People believe their eyes - not the sign... and so need to be rescued.

No racism in that though - UK backpackers are fair proportion of the customers at Bondi Beach...


John Hempton said...

A further follow up: it appears that there has been a professional Muslim female lifeguard hired - note she wears blue (as per the lifeguards) not red/yellow as per the clubbies:

I gather the "burquini" or the modest lifeguard uniform is a very minor drag on swimming performance - but as the lifeguards do almost all their rescues on boards it is trivial...

I have yet to meet a Muslim lifesaver though...


Anonymous said...

Hi John,
Little late to comment however, i enjoyed your story, i just returned from the central coast today visiting family, and i wear a hijab. i have my bronze medallion but not in surf, just still water (not that strong a swimmer :) so can empathise with the lifesavers who wear hijab.

The burqini is awesome, its quicker than the rashies i sometimes wear, they are teflon coated! perhaps you could get a modified version hahaha

Anyhow, i know a couple of the muslim lifeguards and they're really cool girls, doing things they enjoy like sports and community work. Reflecting on my trip to the coast this week, i really felt the lack of understanding between the muslim culture and some australians. Its funny cos i come from an Australian background/anglo, butthat doesnt matter when your in hijab, the looks and comments sting sometimes.
Standing in the shoes of a female who wears hijab i can tell you it takes a lot of guts to wear it and still enjoy the surf like i always did. In sydney, i think people are more used to seeing Muslim women enjoying the beach, and interaction really helps break down barriers. Thanks for your story,
Might bump into you one day, hopefully not needing rescue! :)

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