Agence France Presse
Published — Monday 12 November 2012
Last update 12 November 2012 5:55 am
It’s early on a Sunday morning and parents are lathering their children in sunscreen and tying swimming caps on their heads as they prepare them for the nation’s biggest surf lifesaving “school.”
In a country known for its laid-back lifestyle and expansive sandy beaches, Surf Life Saving is the biggest volunteer organization with more than 150,000 members — of which the five to 13-year-old “nippers” make up about 40 percent.
One of the biggest nippers groups is at Coogee Beach in Sydney’s east, with some 1,130 children involved in sessions that include swimming, diving, board sports in the waves and running on sand.
“It’s a surf lifesaving school for Aussie kids,” explained Doug Hawkins, youth coordinator for the lifesaving program at Coogee Surf Life Saving Club.
All the while, the kids gain experience and confidence in the surf and learn about the dangers of the coast, such as the rip currents that pull swimmers out from the beach and first aid.
“Most parents send their kids to nippers to get them safe in the surf, so their parents can let them go to the beach by themselves or be down the beach with them knowing that these kids are pretty safe in the water,” Hawkins says.
“Australia is an island, we’ve got thousands of beaches. Wherever they go, we need to know they’re going to be safe.”
The Surf Life Saving movement emerged in Australia at the beginning of the 1900s when laws that banned bathing in daylight were repealed and people were increasingly drawn to the surf despite most not being strong swimmers.
The first volunteer lifesaving clubs opened in Sydney in 1907 as concerns about drownings and rescues mounted, with the organization now known as Surf Life Saving Australia formed the same year.
Lifesavers with their iconic red and yellow caps now patrol the coast from Bondi Beach in the east to Perth’s Cottesloe Beach in the west, most of them unpaid volunteers, rescuing more than 12,000 people each year.
Coogee lifesaver Adrian Johnson believes the movement embodies the national character. “I think one of the strong parts of the Australian ethos is mateship and helping out,” he said as junior nippers raced around him.
“So it’s a very strong community-based volunteer organization, and we wouldn’t have safety on the beach if we didn’t have volunteer lifesavers who were willing to give up their time and come down here every weekend.”
Johnson, who has been bringing his three children to the beach for years, said he was first attracted to the sport because it was a family-friendly activity.
“A couple of things attracted me to lifesaving, one was the physical part of it, staying fit,” he said.
“(And) you’re actually out in the water helping people — perhaps it’s the first time they’ve been in the surf.
“And it’s one of the few sports where you can actually work with your kids, so you get to be alongside and actually be involved with them — so it’s pretty unique.” Johnson’s daughter Emma, now 14, joined the Coogee nippers six years ago and is now training twice a week with her dad.
“I haven’t had to rescue anyone yet but I helped a little girl out of the water a little while ago. It feels really good because you know that you’re helping someone and they need help,” she told AFP. Sixteen-year-old Julien Vincent, a former nipper now lifesaver, has saved five lives since becoming a cadet life-saver at the age of 13.
“Last season I saved four lives, so I’m very happy,” he explained modestly.
“It’s a really great feeling. When you get into action it pumps a lot of adrenalin... it’s a lot of responsibility but it’s great.”