With the swelling population of Mangawhai generating over 1,000 beach-goers to the surf beach at a time during summer months, local life guards are certainly kept on their toes.

Mangawhai Heads Volunteer Lifeguard Service (MHVLS) has come a long way from the days when it functioned using a borrowed reel with a handful of lifeguards operating from a tin shed.

That was back in 1963 when the club formed - today the reel has been replaced with rescue boats and the tin shed evolved into a modern club house hosting over 150 members.

Yet, due to the increasing population of Mangawhai and surrounding areas over recent years, these upgrades still aren't enough to cater for the masses who flock to Mangawhai Heads Beach during the height of summer.


As MHVLS veteran and local surfer Tony Baker says: 'Pretty much any day there is a wave and the sun is out, the beach is heaving'.

"Mangawhai is growing all the time and, with a whole bunch of different events over the summer months, such as the New Year Eve Party Northern Bass, which saw 8.000 people coming to the area for three-four days, we can often see 1,000-plus people on or around the beach on any given day.

"We have a really strong surfing community in Mangawhai so, whenever there is a good swell, the beach is usually 70 per cent local surfers. But most of the time it's a mixture of both locals and visitors on the beach. We have lots of beach walkers, tourists, freedom campers, rock fisherman."

MHVLS is an independent member of the Surf Life Saving Northern Region (SLSNR). Its members include over 50 active life guards and over 100 junior surf kids and families ranging from the age of seven – to those in their 80s. Members are eligible to train to become active lifeguards once they are 14 and are taught water confidence and other skills in the meantime.

The active lifeguards work an average 2,000 hours per season at Mangawhai Heads, conducting up to 100 rescues, first aids and searches per season and up to six after-hours search and rescues per year. And, although some of the rescues involve locals, Mr Baker says, most are visitors who get caught out.

"A majority of our rescues are boat-related. Generally, boats that have flipped on the Mangawhai Bar or search and rescue call-outs. Most of the "between the flags" incidents are first-aid related where someone has been injured. Often we are just helping someone back to shore or moving them back to the safe swimming area on the beach."

Members have also been involved in a number of award-winning rescues, including dramatic search and rescues at sea.

"People should never turn their back on the ocean or take its amazing power and energy for granted. A lot of our rescues involve people who are oblivious to the dangers in the sea, often late in the day, close to dark. We are often fishing people off the rocks because they didn't know that the tide comes in, and rescuing people who have launched their boat at the boat ramp and headed out for a day's fishing without checking, and often not wearing a life jacket.

"Other key things to consider are, if they are surfing or paddling with a board, to have a leash, and be aware of other people in the water. Added to this the old 'slip, slop, slap', as we often deal with people who are suffering from heat exhaustion."

He says people are often a mix of both grateful and embarrassed after being rescued.

"Often if people have been pulled out of the waves or from an upturned boat they are in shock. Some people get embarrassed and some even get angry. But, generally they are thankful."

A challenge surf lifesaving clubs face is the expectation that they will always be there.

"The future of surf lifesaving is uncertain due to lack of funding. And closer to home, the sheer volume of people visiting our beaches hasn't matched our club's membership growth. We are constantly trying to recruit new members, and, at an executive level, trying to secure funding so we can continue to operate and deliver the same services we have since 1963."

Although all club members are volunteers, and most of the equipment, such as first aid gear, rescue tubes, flags, fins, inshore rescue boats and engines, are funded by ASB and SLSNZ, along with grants from both the local and regional councils for ongoing training, the rest of the funding comes from public donations. This goes towards the operating costs of the club house.

Tony's own involvement began when he was 18 years old – over two decades ago - when the club president said: 'You guys are local surfers and know the beach and conditions better than anyone else so why not become one of our lifeguards?'

He joined the club and has never looked back.

"It has given me so many opportunities and skills.

"We are so lucky to have such an amazing club right on the beach and to be able to give back to our local community by providing lifesaving and education services."