What a wonderful time of the year this is to be celebrating centuries. Unless of course we consider another kind of 100, that being the number of deaths from drowning in this country, this year. That milestone was reached just two days ago, when a 50-year-old man was caught in a rip near Gisborne and died at the scene despite attempts to revive him. He was the sixth victim since Christmas Day of what was once known as "the New Zealand death".

I'm writing this on a beach, lucky me, with my own children and extended family splashing about in a full tide on a clear summer's day. I can only imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one in the water, to watch on helplessly as they are dragged out by some invisible, menacing ocean current, only to disappear after a desperate and horrific struggle. Drowning, I can tell you, is not the way I would wish to go.

I have had my share of scary moments in the water. I know, for instance, what it feels like to be caught in the deadly grip of an undertow and dragged several hundred metres from shore. I know, also, what it is like to flail about in the hissing foam of a set of large west coast waves, wondering if my breath will hold for another fight to the surface. I know, too, what it is like to pull someone from the water.

I know these things because I grew up at a beach. Moreover I know these things because when I was 8 I joined the Ruakaka Surf Club as a nipper and for the next 10 summers I spent almost every moment of my summer holidays at the club, or at any number of other clubs, competing against other kids my age, learning how not to drown and, most importantly, learning how to prevent others from drowning. It was the single best childhood I could have imagined. The only downside was that I occasionally had to wear Speedos, but at least you now know how I got my nickname.


Alas, my connection with the sport and with the service has lapsed in my adult years, but not a summer passes without me thinking about those endless days at the beach, and without me feeling immensely thankful that there are an amazing number of well trained volunteer and professional lifeguards looking out for us. As far as community services go - and surf lifesaving is very much a community service, in large part reliant upon the generosity of the community - I can't think of one better. Both of my children's grandfathers were surf lifesavers. One picked up a national title, the other picked up a wife. Not a bad return just for hanging out on a beach, really.

According to statistics supplied by Surf Lifesaving Northern Region, the organisation responsible for surf clubs from Raglan to Ahipara, club members have so far this year undertaken more than 80,000 hours of patrol, provided first aid to close to 1000 beachgoers, launched 210 searches, completed 33,000 preventative actions (a kind of preemptive strike made upon spotting the potential for danger) and successfully rescued 474 people.

To put it another way, surf lifesavers in this district have kept more than 125,000 people out of harm's way and have, with absolutely no exaggeration, saved 474 lives. And yet, this legion of volunteers and the small administrative team that binds them to a common and incredible cause, will once again start the New Year desperate for funding. Can you believe that?

Not every beautiful beach in this region is protected by the service (and what a shame that is) but we should all be thankful that many of our most popular spots are. You can bet that every one of the active lifeguards in this region, and around the country, will be saddened by this nation's tragic and frankly embarrassing drowning toll, and will be doing their best every day over summer to make sure this year's toll doesn't reach 101.

You can also bet that every club in the country would be happy to welcome new members - I have two boys lined up already - and if Speedos aren't your thing (not that they're compulsory, thank goodness), a donation will do.