The enduring legacy of Australia’s surf-lifesaving clubs
Volunteers on Australian beaches have been keeping visitors and locals safe for more than 100 years
By Riley Wilson
Updated February 9, 2023 at 12:04 p.m. EST|Published February 4, 2023 at 8:00 a.m. EST
SYDNEY — By the time the sun rises like a bright mango cheek, Australia’s surf lifesavers are already preparing for a day on the sand. Cyril Baldock knows the routine well; he has been a member of the surf club at Bondi Beach, in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, since 1958. At 79, he’s the longest-living life member of Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club, which started in 1907 and is internationally recognized as the first surf-lifesaving club in the world.
“Surf lifesaving originated in Bondi,” he says. “It’s developed all around the world since, in the 314 clubs in Australia, but it was started on Bondi Beach in Australia.”
Volunteer surf lifesavers, as opposed to paid lifeguards, are trained to patrol Australian beaches. Dressed in their iconic yellow and red, the volunteers work weekends in patrol groups between four and 20 people. They undergo about 10 weeks of training, earn a Bronze Medallion and a Surf Rescue Certificate, and renew their qualifications — including fitness tests, skills maintenance and first aid — annually. Patrols are often on the beach by 8 a.m., assessing the water and planting the red-and-yellow flags.
Baldock earned his stripes at Bondi SLSC, winning 17 Australian titles and two world titles in surf competitions, and the titles of president, captain, life member and — now — patron. He goes for a swim daily, and he’s one of millions of Australians who do so every day.
There are about 12,000 beaches dotting the Australian coast, and they tend to top the bucket lists of most visitors. But Baldock’s the first to tell you that the period of time between a safe swim and a potentially dangerous swim is a matter of seconds.
“[Bondi] is very open to the sea and to the conditions of the current, sand, winds and swell,” Baldock says. “But the biggest thing that [tourists] don’t understand is the old thing about, ‘Swim between the flags.’ What they’ll see is that that’s where it’s rough. A lot of tourists, … they’ll want to go where it looks calm. And it’s calm where it’s dangerous.”
In doing so, people unwittingly head toward a rip current, the deadliest threat on Australian beaches. Many Australian beaches are wide and open, some with gaping mouths bookended with sharp, cliff-drop headlands. The currents at these beaches are strong and unpredictable, energized by rapidly changing ocean motions.
But the clubs — and their some 190,000 volunteers — have it covered. Before there was the Australian reality show “Bondi Rescue,” there were Bondi rescues. There were rescues from Port Douglas in northern Queensland to the sandy shores of Somerset Beach, in Tasmania. Australia’s volunteer surf lifesavers have long conquered switching swells, shark alerts and incompetent swimmers with determination and unwavering patience.
Navigating the beach and understanding beach safety is key, says Shane Daw, 58, the general manager of coastal safety for Surf Life Saving Australia and a life member of his South Australian surf club. He crafts national strategic direction around coastal safety and calculates the risk of lifesaving activity. Over the past 10 years, SLSA performed on average 11,000 rescues per year and had 60,000 first-aid cases. In total, across Australia’s coastline between 2021 and 2022, there were 8,916 rescues and 208 fatalities.
“Aussies very much feel a value in giving back to the community,” Daw says. “It’s about the camaraderie, the friendships, the skills that you learn, the social network. … [All surf lifesavers] want to be there and make sure people enjoy our coast and are able to go home to their loved ones saying they had a great day at the beach.”
It “became part of the culture during the Depression years,” Daw says, when a longing for purpose and community propelled Australians into surf clubs. For decades, it was mostly men; women were denied full membership until 1980.
These days, the clubs are great Australian community services, teaching anyone who wants to get involved first aid, water safety and emergency response. “It’s all been done in a voluntary capacity, and it still is,” says Elaine Farmer, former CEO of Surf Life Saving South Australia and current volunteer, as well as the first woman to be elected as the president of an Australian surf-lifesaving club. “It would have to be close to three-quarters of a million people who have been rescued now by our volunteers. … I just called them ‘unpaid professionals.’ They do everything that a professional would do, they’re just not paid.”
There are lifeguards on certain Australian beaches who are paid by councils and are on the beach daily. But it’s the visibility and legacy of volunteer surf lifesavers that most Australians associate with the beach. It starts young — clubs operate Nippers programs for children from age 5 — and can last a lifetime, with fundraisers, fun runs, surfboat competitions and events forming the backbone of coastal towns.
“It’s a standard family, really,” says Farmer, 72. “You can go anywhere in Australia, … drop in, and the arms are open.”
Eric Middledorp, 72, has been involved with surf lifesaving for nearly 60 years. The resident historian for the Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club, on Sydney’s northern beaches, Middledorp is passionate about spreading the joy of the surf. He’s also a champion of surf-lifesaving competitions, which are held on weekends in a carnival style.
Australian beaches are “renowned throughout the world, and for good reason. Most visitors, if they have the time, should take advantage of our lovely beaches,” Middledorp says. It’s something he does every day. “I’m about to go out for a wave if the wind hasn’t picked up.”
If you are heading to Australia’s beaches this summer, here are tips from the lifesavers to keep you safe.
Stay between the flags, and pay attention to rips
The area of the surf between the red-and-yellow flags has been designated safe by the patrolling surf lifesavers. Always swim between the flags.
Rip currents are strong, narrow channels of water that flow past the surf breaks. They’re the No. 1 risk on Australian beaches. To identify a rip, look for where waves are breaking constantly, then look to where the water is calmer on either side. It may be darker and have a rippled surface. These are rips.
If you are caught in a rip, remain calm and raise your hand to attract the attention of lifesavers. Do not panic. You can also swim parallel to the beach to try to swim out of a rip current.
Mitigate sunburn, sunstroke and dehydration
Australian children are raised on a jingle of “slip, slop, slap”: Slip on a long-sleeved shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat.
“We are the sunburnt country,” Daw says. “We implore everybody to think about their own health and well-being. Stay hydrated [and] keep sunscreen on.”
Patrols attend to sunstroke and sunburn victims daily. Mitigate this hazard by regularly applying sunscreen, drinking plenty of water, finding shade whenever possible and recognizing when you’ve had enough.
Check for stingers and other sea life
Unpatrolled and secluded beaches can be home to plenty of nonhuman visitors, including crocodiles or breeding sharks. “Be aware of the diversity of our coastline,” Daw says.
Sharks are not the most dangerous things in Australian waters. A shark attack on Feb. 16, 2022, at Sydney’s Little Bay, was the first fatality of its kind in the area since 1963.
Stingers, including bluebottles and potentially lethal box jellyfish, are also important to keep an eye out for. You may also see bluebottles washed up on the beach. They sting. Look out for signs that indicate these hazards.
If you’re not sure about what’s in the water, how it’s behaving or what you should watch for, ask. Clearly marked signs also provide information each day; be attentive, and request help if you need it.
A previous version of this article listed Elaine Farmer as the CEO of Surf Life Saving South Australia. She is a former CEO. This version has been corrected.