Reef at Mt Maunganui a headache for lifeguards

By Juliet Rowan

Rips at Mt Maunganui's new artificial surf reef are creating extra work for lifeguards as swimmers ignore warning signs and plunge into dangerous seas to reach the sandy break.

Two rips have appeared in front of the half-completed reef, which is located 250m offshore from the popular Tay St area and is shallow enough to stand on in calm conditions.

At least five signs have been placed by the water's edge warning of the danger from the rips, but Mt Maunganui and Omanu Beach surf clubs say people are walking straight past them and swimming out to the reef.

The surf clubs have each stationed a lifeguard at Tay St out of concern that someone may drown, despite the strain it is putting on resources in their respective flagged patrols.

Mt Maunganui's head lifeguard Ross McBurnie said the rips were not a major problem while the surf was small, but that could easily change.

"We're anticipating that if we do get surf, it's going to be a hotspot for rescues."

He said lifeguards were being forced to approach swimmers who ignored the signs and issue individual warnings.

Swimmers were at greater risk than surfers or boogie-boarders because they lacked flotation devices that could save them from trouble.

Omanu Beach Surf Club president Allan Mundy said support among local lifeguards for the reef was high. "We're all surfies," he said.

But he believed it was only a matter of time before a swimmer came to grief and he dreaded the pressure on patrols when bigger swells arrived.

"We will be stretched. It's as simple as that."

Even in half-metre swells earlier this week, the rips were strong and swimmers found the journey back to shore arduous, he said.

Neither surf club is obliged to patrol Tay St because the area is not in their contracts, but Mr Mundy said they felt "duty-bound" to do so.

Tay St was also difficult to patrol because it lacked a lifeguard tower and other resources. His first priority in the busy season, or when swells posed a risk to the public, was staffing the flagged area at Omanu.

Mr Mundy criticised the Tauranga City Council for turning down a funding application for an extra patrol at Tay St this summer, despite knowing the reef was being installed.

But Surf Lifesaving Bay of Plenty, which made the application, said it was grateful that the council had agreed to provide money for a patrol next summer.

The organisation's lifesaving manager, Carl McLaughlan, said several proposals to make patrolling Tay St easier were being examined, including attaching a lifeguard tower to a toilet being built in the area.

He said it was possible the rips around the reef could diminish when the second half was completed because the currents could change.

"The Mount Reef is an unknown."

The creators of the reef said it was not designed for swimming, particularly when there were swells.

"It's a surfing reef. There probably will be rips and we'd hope no one would be swimming on it," Mount Reef Trust executive officer David Neilson said.

The trust supported having lifeguards at the reef, but swimmers should go to areas where there were flagged patrols, he said.

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