Surf Life Saving New Zealand
In 2005 the national organisation, Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ), co-ordinated the activities of 71 clubs in nine districts, with a total membership of nearly 13,000. It is a member of the International Life Saving Federation. As well as training lifeguards, who must obtain the Surf Lifeguard award, and juniors (known as ‘nippers’), the clubs offer water safety education programmes for school children. Surf sports, which cover the traditional range of lifesaving activities, are considered important in coaching lifeguards, and local and national competitions are still held regularly.
Although there is still a place for reel, line and belt or surf ski rescues, technology has had a major influence on the way surf rescues are carried out. In 1970 helicopters were first used for picking up swimmers in trouble and transporting the injured to hospital. They were later used for other types of emergency rescue.
Jet boats also made their appearance in the 1970s, soon to be succeeded by jet skis and inflatable rescue boats (IRBs), fondly known as ‘rubber duckies’. Resuscitation techniques have also evolved from applying pressure to the patient’s back, to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Clubs now have medical equipment such as defibrillators.
The need for surf rescue continues to grow. During the 2004–05 summer period, over 2,000 people were rescued around New Zealand’s shores, an increase from 1,700 the previous year. SLSNZ receives some funding from sources such as the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board and Charity Gaming and private sponsorship to run programmes, but it remains a largely voluntary organisation.
A world first
In 1970 helicopter pilot George Sobiecki suggested to the Auckland Surf Life Saving Association that he could run a beach rescue service in Auckland over summer. So began the world’s first civilian helicopter rescue service operated by a surf lifesaving association. In the first year, 11 rescues were made. Within 15 years the number had reached over 1,000.
The image of lifesavers
The idealised, bronzed lifeguard made popular in American television programmes such as Baywatch has probably influenced New Zealanders’ perceptions. Surf lifesavers are widely admired. Many people know from experience that they often make the difference between life and death – a point reinforced by the local television series Piha rescue. The warning to ‘swim between the flags’ is familiar to most New Zealanders, as is the sight of lifeguards scanning the waves from the clubrooms that overlook most popular swimming beaches. As an activity that combines both team sport and community service, surf lifesaving upholds ideals that are an important part of New Zealand culture.