Watchful dedication ensures beach safety

By Roger Moroney

EARLY START: Emma Hubbard, 25, passed her qualified active lifeguard exam when she was 14. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
EARLY START: Emma Hubbard, 25, passed her qualified active lifeguard exam when she was 14. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

In a tragic start to the summer season, this month a 7-year-old and his 22-year-old uncle drowned near Wairoa while trying to rescue a young relative swept into the surf.

In February a Hastings man drowned diving off the Central Hawke's Bay coast.

Such incidents are all too common in New Zealand with its strong tradition of water-based pastimes. Hawke's Bay is renowned for its temperate summer climate, its sandy beaches and the wealth of water-based activities such as fishing, swimming, diving and surfing.

While many recreational water activities have recorded fewer fatalities in recent years, this is in no small part attributable to a large number of people and organisations working constantly to ensure those taking to the water minimise the risks involved.

Napier's Emma Hubbard has been devoted to keeping the swimmers, splashers and paddlers safe on the patrolled areas of Marine Parade Beach since she was "a nipper".

Now Pacific Surf Life Saving Club captain, chief instructor and lifesaving co-ordinator, she did what many eventual lifeguards did - followed the family into it.

Her father, Neil, was a lifeguard with the club, and is still part of it in a cheerful group referred to (even by themselves) as "the oldies".

"He'd be patrolling and I'd go along just to hang out with him, so it was a natural progression for me."

Now 25, she sat and passed her qualified active lifeguard exam when she was 14.

The Marine Parade-based club is the smallest of Hawke's Bay four, the others being Waimarama, Ocean Beach and Westshore, but is in pretty good shape when it comes to putting people on patrol.

"We have got about 40 qualified active guards we can call on and for a club this size that's good," Ms Hubbard said.

Most of those guards, like her, started as nippers - youngsters from the age of seven drawn to the club life.

"There has always been a strong social and family atmosphere with the clubs and that appeals."

A "City Nippers" open day staged last Sunday near Perfume Point where regular outings are staged resulted in 10 new potential lifeguards and club members being signed up.

The youngsters are run through training programmes designed as fun, as well as educational and functional in making the grade as a qualified active lifeguard - which they can go for when they turn 14.

To get there they will carry out a 400m pool swim in less than nine minutes, take part in run/swim/runs in the surf, go through a resuscitation and rescue test and carry out theory and practical surf knowledge tests.

But it wasn't just older guards training younger guards.

There had been several occasions in which a couple of youngsters had moved through ranks to secure instructors' awards.

"And they went on to instruct their parents."

Young lifeguards would often gravitate toward their clubs during summer weekends - whether on duty or not, as it was simply a good place to be.

"Their mates often come along and they start to get involved as well."

The "word of mouth" and family tradition within the 73 surf lifesaving clubs across the country are vital components - as the whole structure is effectively a voluntary one.

Watching those in the waters began when the first clubs sprang up in 1910 on the shores of Lyall Bay and New Brighton.

By the end of that year, four more clubs had sprung up and started patrolling, and one of them was the Pacific Club on the Napier foreshore.

There were a couple of recesses, during wartime, but surf lifesaving was well and truly revived in the early 1950s when the Pacific Club sparked up again.

The Waimarama Surf Life Saving Club started up in 1951, the Westshore club in 1959 and Ocean Beach in 1965.

During the season the club patrols its flag zone as well as between the National Aquarium to the sandy beach at the port end of Hardinge Rd.

Marine Parade Beach is like any swimming beach - it needs to be respected, Ms Hubbard said.

"If it was not a suitable beach to swim at then we wouldn't put the flags up - any beach has the potential to be challenging when the surf gets up."

Every beach was different, with the sometimes "flat water" beaches like Ocean Beach susceptible to holes forming.

"You could be knee deep one moment and its over your head the next."

The best advice for swimmers new to a beach?

"Simple - swim between the flags because we have checked the conditions and put them in the safest possible places."

If the flags were down people needed to be wary, although lifeguards would still be on the beaches as human nature was human nature - people would still go in.

"Ask us for advice because lifeguards know their beaches."

She said safety was about knowing your limitations, and following the obvious rules of not swimming alone, dashing in wearing jeans or having a few drinks then hitting the waves.

"Don't drink and sink," was Ms Hubbard's take on the latter.

"Although it's a liquor-free area people will still drink there. In the morning when the lifeguards first arrive they'll go around with rubbish bags and pick up the rubbish - and they find broken glass."

A major part of the training programme for guards was searching for and identifying risk factors like the strength of the waves and their possible effects on smaller or older people.

During times of offshore winds the danger came from inflatables.

Caught by the westerly wind they would drift out, and she has seen, and been involved in, several rescue pursuits of youngsters who have tried to swim out to get them back.

Lifeguards would often approach people if they saw something happening that could result in a good day at the beach turning into a bad one.

"We call it preventive actions - the best lifeguards don't get wet."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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