Lifesaving has always demanded close teamwork. The reel, line and belt rescue technique dates from the early 20th century. One of the team, known as the beltman, would swim out to the person in trouble, wearing a belt attached to a line which unrolled from a reel. Other members of the team would pay out the line, then reel in the beltman with the rescued swimmer, who would be resuscitated if necessary. Sometimes boats with a crew of rowers could reach swimmers more quickly, especially if they were far from shore or in heavy surf.
Adaptations of equipment
New Zealanders adopted or adapted a range of rescue gear that had originated in Australia. The earliest reels were wooden, with rope attached to a cork belt worn by the beltman. The belt could be a death trap if the line became snagged, as the beltman could not take it off. In 1948 a New Zealander designed the Ross Safety Belt – a three-piece canvas chest harness held together with a steel pin. In an emergency it could be easily removed. This remained the main lifesaving aid for nearly 50 years. Another device that achieved lasting popularity in New Zealand was the neoprene rescue tube, which provided flotation for both rescuer and rescued.
Some lifesaving craft were imported from Australia: the narrow, light, double-ended surf boat; the hollow longboard on which a lifeguard kneeled while paddling with his hands; and the surf ski propelled by one or two seated lifeguards using paddles. In the 1930s Don Wright of the Piha Surf Life Saving Club designed an improved teardrop-shaped surf ski between 12 and 16 feet (3.6 and 4.8 metres) long, which was soon used by clubs around New Zealand. The surf canoe, propelled by four paddlers, was developed by Duke Gillies of Dunedin’s St Clair club in 1933 as a cheaper, more seaworthy alternative to the surf boat, and was widely used from the 1940s onwards.
Competitions for surf rescue techniques, known as surf carnivals, became regular events. Two trophies, the Wigram Shield and the Nelson Shield, were established in 1911 and 1915 respectively. Initially lifesavers competed at club level, but later there were also competitions between regional surf lifesaving associations. In 1932 a national body, the New Zealand Surf Life Saving Association, was formed and competitions with Australia began in 1937.
The surf carnival
Surf lifesaving carnivals were a colourful spectacle, with novelty events such as a human chariot race, tug-of-war and acrobatics. The high point was the ‘March Past’. Competing teams paraded along the beach in their brightly coloured swimsuits and caps, carrying reels and club banners.
These events emphasised military-style drill. The reel, line and belt rescue followed a strict pattern. Synchronisation was all-important, for instance when the team played out the line at head height, or marched solemnly up the beach carrying the rescued swimmer face down.
Competitions reinforced the team aspect of lifesaving as well as helping to improve rescue standards. They also provided a lively diversion for other beach users. The pageantry of surf lifesaving reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s.
Women in surf lifesaving
Some clubs such as the Piha Surf Life Saving Club, founded in 1934, initially admitted men only, but others had a ‘ladies’ section’, and there were also some clubs solely for women. Regional contests between women’s teams occurred before the Second World War, and from 1944 national women’s titles were contested. But it was not until the 1970s that mixed teams of lifesavers became accepted.