Some beaches, Auckland’s most popular - and dangerous - among them, could go unpatrolled next summer if weather-battered surf life saving clubs can’t plug a $16 million funding hole. Cherie Howie reports.
Waves come in quick succession at Te Henga, froth-topped rollers spilling on to dark volcanic sand and transforming into what Leonard Mead calls “a white mess”.
At Raglan, 100km down the coast, you might get a wave every 30 or 40 seconds; at Bethells Beach - the now widely-used name European settlers began calling Te Henga early last century - it’s more like every eight to 10.
Rips, too, are different here, says Mead, club captain at Bethells Beach Surf Life Saving Patrol.
They’re more inconsistent than those that sometimes snare swimmers at other popular beaches on Auckland’s west coast, like Muriwai or Piha.
“We can come down from one Saturday to Sunday, and it’s a different beach.”
It’s little wonder this stretch of coastline 38km west of downtown Auckland has claimed its share of lives over the decades - among them Warriors rookie Sonny Fai, who drowned aged 20 while saving his 13-year-old brother’s life in 2009. His body has never been found.
“Bethells,” says Mead, “is a wild beach.
That it is.
But it’s also the front window of a strip of public real estate on the - prevailing - windward side of a skinny little mob of islands in the mid-latitudes that endure their share of ferocious weather, most especially this year.
Clamber back over the sand dunes - you have to, the old access washed away in Cyclone Gabrielle - and you’ll come across half a clubhouse and a whole lot of problems for Mead and his fellow volunteers.
The clubhouse deck - last seen bobbing in the muddy, swollen waters of Waitākere River in a Valentine’s Day video shot by Mead that quickly went viral - is perhaps the best-known piece of club infrastructure lost when Gabrielle thrashed much of the North Island almost four months ago.
“There’s our deck, floating down the estuary,” Mead can be heard saying as his cellphone camera tracks the broken structure’s journey toward the Tasman Sea.
Out of shot, a bigger problem loomed.
The flooding river scoured a large section of ground below the clubrooms, leaving half the building hanging precariously and earning it one of Auckland Council’s access-restricting yellow stickers, Mead says.
That part, an area of about 50sq m, which included a large meeting space and dorms able to house up to 18 professional lifeguards in summer, has now been removed - “amputated”, patrol life member and former president Dave Comp says bluntly, as if describing a gangrenous limb that just had to go.
It was the only way to safely keep the clubhouse open.
“We’ve amputated that risky part, which allows us just to keep a fundamental operation going on.”
Being on land still at risk of being carved away in future weather events - expected to be more frequent, and intense, under climate change - isn’t a long-term solution.
Nor is having half as much space.
They can store their gear out of the elements - although flooding in some ground-level areas is an ongoing problem - and there’s a first aid room, a corner for their radio equipment, and something of a gathering space, including a small kitchen.
But it’s no good long term, Mead says.
They need areas to keep traumatised families away from where emergency service crews might be discussing a search operation, or what might be going on in the first aid room - as well as their own rescues, they respond year-round to coastal first-aid callouts on behalf of St John.
And they need room for patrol gatherings, whether for training or debriefs so important for those - some as young as 14 - who give their time to save lives at one of Auckland’s most perilous beaches.
The sausage sizzle hangouts they used to have on the patch of lawn in front of the club are now a fading memory.
There was one positive change, albeit something they’d happily trade for Cyclone Gabrielle having instead spun northeast and spared us all the wind, rain and sea surges that took 11 lives and wrecked infrastructure, homes and buildings from the Far North to Wairarapa.
“We can now see the beach,” Mead says, as he surveys the scene from the club’s new north-facing window.
“We’ve never had that. We had big dunes blocking the view.”
“This is the best piece of real estate in Bethells - at the moment.”
Forty-nine years early
We drop big bucks for views.
Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown, arguing for the downtown port to be booted for a mixed-use replacement, put a $500,000 price tag on residential waterfront views, based on the difference in price between his east-facing apartment and a west-facing neighbour.
Still, they don’t want to stay, the clubmates say.
In fact, they can’t - even before Gabrielle, the patrol knew they were on borrowed time, as the Auckland Council had found in recent years that the site was now considered a “50-year flood plain”.
“We knew we had to move, so we were working on that process,” Comp says.
“The problem is 50 years just happened 49 years early.”
To Comp’s left, ash-coloured sand and its cliff-top border would meld into one were it not for the strip of milky green surf in between; to his right, the stunning views from O’Neill’s Hill had turned it into a popular Instagram spot before the cyclone washed away the access bridge to Te Henga Walkway.
But beauty doesn’t pay the bills.
And this one’s a biggie: $5.4 million to rebuild on a new site - it would be Auckland Council-owned land, club-owned building, as now - and all accelerated by the events of February 14.
To add to their woes, the club got no insurance payout because flooding on the river side of the clubhouse is excluded.
Both clubmen reckon the patrol can stick out the current situation no more than two years, and even that’s a bit shaky with the needs of 150 Nippers, 120 qualified lifeguards and accommodation for paid lifeguards in summer to sort, Mead says.
It’s about succession, too.
Nippers must take part with a parent, and the club usually converts six to eight of the adults into lifeguards every year, but restricted quarters long-term could impact the flow of new volunteers for years.
Even more problematic, they’re not alone.
Bethells’ big bill is matched by that facing Mangawhai Heads Volunteer Lifeguard Service, whose clubhouse has been red-stickered since heavy rain in January triggered a damaging landslide.
Like their Auckland cousins, Mangawhai Heads also need a new clubhouse on a new site, and similarly found their insurance void against natural disaster.
For now, home is a Portacom.
The unwanted water feature
Mangawhai Heads and Bethells Beach are among eight surf lifesaving clubs in Northland, Auckland and Waikato who collectively need $16m in funding for repairs, rebuilds and relocations, Surf Life Saving Northern Region chief executive Matt Williams says.
Along with Bethells Beach and Mangawhai Heads, the most acutely affected are Waikato’s Sunset Beach and Auckland’s Piha, Muriwai, Karekare, Karioitahi (Kariaotahi) and Red Beach, some of which functioned as critical community Civil Defence and emergency management centres during last summer’s weather events.
Some beaches could go unpatrolled next summer if urgent funding can’t be found, Williams says.
Among affected clubs are some who’d barely turned the key on their new homes when disaster struck.
Sunset Beach in Tuakau, which opened its new clubhouse in 2021, had the beach and carpark access washed out and now needs “some pretty quick work done to make sure their brand new surf club doesn’t wash away”, Williams says.
At North Auckland’s Red Beach, the cyclone had eroded the land and destroyed the roof of the 5-year-old clubhouse.
“So, they’ve got waterfalls that come in through their roof when it rains now.”
Almost a million dollars in total is needed to repair damage at the two clubs.
Other clubs, such as Karekare, Muriwai and Piha, suffered less but still faced a substantial bill.
“It’s not to the level Bethells and Mangawhai have had, but it’s still in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The funding crisis is the biggest challenge Surf Life Saving has faced in more than a century of standing guard on Kiwi beaches, Williams says.
They already had a budget hole of $4.6m before it ballooned to $16m after our summer of natural disasters.
Amid all the stories of surf lifesaving clubs’ heroic responses - Northern Region surf lifeguards saved 350 lives during the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle - people had overlooked that the charity was also one of the worst-hit organisations, he says.
The consequences may be harder to miss.
“We’ve been crippled... and in some locations that means our volunteers in red and yellow, the people we rely on to keep our coastlines safe, may not be back for next summer at key locations unless immediate solutions are put in place.”
Two clubs - United North Piha and south-west Auckland’s Karioitahi - were, after more than a decade of fundraising and planning, either nearing or under way on their rebuilds when the region was lashed first by the January 27 floods and, two weeks later, Cyclone Gabrielle.
United North Piha began work in December before suffering flooding, washouts, issues with construction camps and an inability to fundraise after the West Auckland settlement was badly impacted by Gabrielle.
Karioitahi, meanwhile, was due to start its rebuild in February but hadn’t hit its funding targets and now faces losing money already promised because of an overall shortfall of $1.4m for the project. Surf Life Saving Northern Region requires clubs to have their projects fully funded before work begins.
Auckland Council had agreed to $1.6m funding, but a June 30 sunset clause is looming and, when enacted, will spark a house of cards scenario that topples other cash promises, including from the Lottery Grants Board, Williams says.
“So for Karioitahi it becomes not just a $1.4m shortfall, it’s possible that you’re losing $5m worth of funding for the sake of that $1.4 million shortfall... and there are no avenues we can see open to help them with that - they’ve been really diligent in their fundraising.
“We had it on the table to fix this year, and then we had our attention pulled sideways to the Bethells, Mangawhai and Piha issues.”
The National Marine Rescue Centre in Mechanics Bay, where the organising body works alongside other rescue organisations including Coastguard, the Harbourmaster and Maritime Police, similarly has a $2m Auckland Council funding agreement for a rebuild due to lapse on June 30, Williams says.
The council had been fair, extending the sunset clause multiple times, but they haven’t been able to secure additional funding for what he describes as a “critical piece of national infrastructure”.
“It’s not a house of cards like Karioitahi. And that’s sad in its own right, because it hasn’t attracted other funding.”
Relief fund lifeline?
The Government was quick to offer its initial support, with assurances from Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Williams says.
But months have passed with no word - including in last month’s Budget.
“We think that means we’ll go into the Cyclone Gabrielle Relief Fund process, which the timeframes may not match up to having solutions in place at the start of next [summer] season.
“We’re hoping to have some fast-track support, like some of the other communities - we saw the Growers Association down in Napier get that. Especially given the reliance the community has on [Surf] Life Saving, but nothing has been forthcoming at this stage.”
He’s been told about the impact recent weather events have had on surf lifesaving clubs in the North Island, Robertson says.
“I’ve asked Sport NZ for their advice on the matters raised.”
The cyclone relief fund was established to help cover the cost of damage to infrastructure and facilities.
“[It was] set up with projects like the surf clubs in the Northern Region in mind, which they can apply for [funding to pay for].”
The almost $15m fund, which includes the proceeds of a special March 18 Lotto draw, is overseen by an independent charitable trust and will focus on longer-term rebuild initiatives put forward by communities, a Department of Internal Affairs spokeswoman says.
Trustees wanted communities, hapū and iwi, and marae, to have time to make decisions about “what their future looks like” before funding is distributed.
“With that in mind, the trustees do not expect to make funding decisions in 2023.”
‘This is it’
One thing Williams and the clubs under his Northern Region umbrella won’t need to argue is why their service matters.
The hundreds rescued each year - 347 in life or death incidents on Northern Region beaches last patrol season - are testament enough, let alone other ways surf lifesavers are coming to our aid, including responding to St John first aid callouts and Search and Rescue requests from the police.
In the past year they were involved in almost as many rescues outside patrol hours than during them, and that excludes the many rescues made during the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, Williams says.
In all, volunteers put in 86,000 hours between October and April.
Among those who owe their lives to surf lifesavers is Piha dad Paul Gillick.
“It’s pretty sobering,” the 46-year-old says, as he thinks back to the Waitangi Day swim three years ago that nearly cost him his life, and his newborn daughter her dad.
A confident swimmer, he went between the flags and was about 40m out in rough surf and an outgoing tide when he felt his body being pulled towards Lion Rock.
Trying not to panic, he initially thought he could swim to shore, but as waves kept crashing over he began swallowing seawater and feeling short of breath.
Fatigue - and fear - kicked in.
“I was actually thinking, ‘This is it’... you go for a short swim [and nearly drown]. It was a harsh lesson.”
The legal counsel for Herald parent company NZME thought of baby Nina and partner Nicole Sykes, and raised his arm.
Lifeguards were there within a minute.
“The guys pulled me in [the IRB] and it was absolute relief.”
He doesn’t get flashbacks anymore, but he’ll never forget what surf lifesavers did for him that day.
Now, they need all our help.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if it was just a story about me. But it’s for a good cause … they do need your donations.”
‘The Titanic which broke the camel’s back’
The paradox, says Williams, is that even before Gabrielle they knew change was needed, and not just at Bethells Beach.
“We thought we had the luxury of time. But we should’ve been talking out loud about this 10 years ago. How do we actively manage and have a plan for our social coastal infrastructure? [It’s] a community building - we’ve got 100 of them around the rest of the country which will all have the same problems, and that’s just within Surf Life Saving.
“Cyclone Gabrielle asked a question, we didn’t have an answer and I think we need to have something pretty quickly because these will become more common.”
The Herald on Sunday asked Robertson if a levy, similar to that included in property insurance policies to fund Fire and Emergency New Zealand, or a centralised funding model involving various benefactors, could solve Surf Life Saving’s financial headaches.
Surf Life Saving New Zealand receives annual grants distributed to charities by Water Safety New Zealand, from funding provided through the Lottery Grants Board via Sport NZ, Robertson says.
Others, including ACC, business, trusts and foundations, also support specific programmes and initiatives, and $60.5m was committed to the national Surf Life Saving and Coastguard bodies for rescue services in 2020.
The Ministry of Transport-chaired New Zealand Search and Rescue Council also helps fund surf clubs, he says.
But change could be on the way, with the ministry leading a review of the Recreational Safety and Search and Rescue systems.
“[This] includes water safety, [and is] to make sure the sector is well supported to deliver safety services for people heading outdoors.”
The review is expected to be completed at the end of the month, a ministry spokesman said.
The review is “an excellent piece of work” but results will be 18 months to three years away - too late for cash-strapped clubs it could help, such as Karioitahi.
And it won’t address the shortfall faced by those damaged in this year’s extreme weather events, as summer edges closer.
He thinks about that every day, Williams says.
“Pulse, pulse, pulse,” he says, as waves break on to Bethells Beach every eight to 10 seconds, unrelenting, like the turn of the calendar or a fierce weather system.
The twin disasters that struck his surf lifesaving region this year dumped a huge amount of unbudgeted capital infrastructure costs on its clubs, all while strangling fundraising efforts as communities picked themselves up, and the men, women and teens in red and yellow helped them.
“They were, you know, plodding along looking like they were going to reach success [in club repair and rebuild projects] on a far slower timeline than they’d expected.
“And the extreme weather events are the Titanic that broke the camel’s back.”
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