A Sydney council has introduced instant fines for bathers who won't swim between the flags. The lifeguards who have to enforce the measures aren't so keen, writes KATHY MARKS.
Straight-backed, hands on hips, Clinton Rose surveys the crowded surf off Curl Curl Beach, northern Sydney, on a scorching midsummer afternoon.
"Mate, swim between the flags!" he calls to a teenager who has drifted outside the safe area delineated by two red and yellow pennants stuck in the sand.
Rose is a professional lifeguard, part of a proud Australian tradition that dates back more than a century. His job is to patrol the waves and rescue bathers who get into difficulty in the treacherous conditions found off many Sydney beaches.
Distinctive figures in their old-fashioned red and yellow caps and matching trunks, the lifeguards and their volunteer counterparts, the surf lifesavers, enjoy iconic status in a nation with 40,000km of coastline.
They are, however, about to become decidedly less popular. For the rest of the summer, these bronzed young men and women will be required to issue on-the-spot fines of $315 to bathers who ignore their instructions to swim between the flags, or flout other rules of the beach such as the ban on exercising dogs and dropping litter.
The measures, which will affect Curl Curl and a chain of northern beaches, have been introduced by Warringah Council in an effort to curb irresponsible behaviour.
Critics say the measures will provoke confrontations with the public and demean the lifesavers, making them more akin to traffic wardens.
Sydneysiders, who boast that they learn to swim before they can walk, see the move as an affront to the city's free and easy beach culture. Some see it as a throwback to the 1960s, when surfboards had to be registered with local councils and inspectors patrolled the beaches with tape measures to ensure that costumes did not offend public decency.
"Nobody's going to tell me where I can and can't swim," says Wayne Duffield, shaking the droplets of water off his body as he emerged from the waves. Duffield, a local who swims at Curl Curl every day during the summer, says: "It's too crowded between the flags. Between the flags is for kids and tourists."
Rose does not agree. Thirty-five people have already drowned in beaches around Australia this summer. Curl Curl, like neighbouring beaches such as North Narrabeen and Dee Why, has strong rips and currents that seize unwitting swimmers and drag them far out to sea. Last year, Warringah lifeguards rescued 2000 people from the surf.
"The antisocial minority are putting our lives at risk," says Rose.
But he acknowledges the fines will be difficult to enforce. Faced with a man wearing only trunks, Rose will have to accept his word that he has no money or identification with him. And if the offender gives his name and address as Mickey Mouse from Disneyland, there will not be much Rose can do about it.
Phil Vanny, chief executive of Surf Life Saving New South Wales, says lifeguards don't want to be seen as the parking police of the beach.
"We've got a magnificent image around the world, and we'd hate to jeopardise that."
Other councils in Sydney have also reported an increase in reckless behaviour. At Bondi, hundreds of people were fished out of the surf during the Christmas holiday period, and some had to be rescued several times after wading straight back into unflagged areas.
But Warringah's experiment is unlikely to be emulated elsewhere. Paul Pearce, the mayor of Waverley Council, which covers Bondi, says: "I think it's a bit foolish. We don't want our lifesavers chasing stray dogs up the beach or fining people who drop cigarette butts in the sand. It's a distraction from the main business of making sure people don't drown."