Surf Life Saving clubs and communities across Australia are mourning the loss yesterday of a 14-year-old boy who drowned while competing in the annual Championships on the Gold Coast. One of his fellow competitors saw Matthew Barclay was in trouble, signalled to a rescue jetski, dived off his board and grabbed Matthew, who was then torn from his grasp by a set of waves. The bewildering fact is that, despite thousands of life savers in the vicinity, Matthew's body was not found until the following morning. Such is the unpredictable and awesome power of the sea.
With the grief came immediate questions. It is only two years since a 19-year-old from Sydney, Saxon Bird, died in similar circumstances at the same beach in the same Championships; and it was the third death since 1996, when a 15-year-old drowned. Should Karrawa Beach be used again for this event? Should inflatable vests and protective headgear be compulsory? Are young surf life savers pushed too hard?
The Surf Life Saving movement is more than a hundred years old*. It has more than 150,000 members and more than 40,000 of them patrol Australia's beaches. Queensland alone has 35,000 kilometres of coastline and more than 700 beaches that are accessible. There are 59 Surf Life Saving clubs across the state and 84 patrolled beaches. We even have a Surf Life Savers Club serving the man-made Streets Beach Lagoon at South Bank in the middle of Brisbane.
All surf life savers are volunteers. I was shocked shortly after I arrived in Australia when stopped by fundraisers in Bulimba's high street, to learn that their good works are wholly dependent on donations. I have supported them ever since. Who knows when my son might need them as he surfs off the Great Ocean Road in Victoria?
Surf Life Savers are a key element of the iconic Australian beach lifestyle. Their presence on a beach is mightily reassuring if you're in the water, and they personify the fit, athletic, community-minded character that many Aussies aspire to. Children can get involved by joining Junior Activities, known as Nippers, as young as five. Learning how to stay safe on the beach and in the ocean can't start soon enough. I have seen extremely focused mothers in the pool loudly praising their toddlers' first progress towards swimming, and babies in floating contraptions being 'trained' how to kick their legs. I have seen children in the pool after school every day being urged to compete with their siblings, swimming underwater or diving in. I imagine this boosts their confidence in the water to levels I can hardly imagine, being a wuss from a land where it's too cold to go into the water most of the year. Children here appear eager and quite fearless as they frolic in the waves.
As well as beach safety, lifesaving and community educational aspects of SLSA (Surf Life Saving Australia), there are surf sports. Lots of different events take place in what are known as carnivals, in which life savers compete to show off their skills. Endurance championships include ocean swimming, board paddling, surf skiing, beach running and a surfboat marathon. Other events include inflatable rescue boats (IRB) racing, ironperson races and surf and pool rescue.
It is this aspect of SLS activities that is now under scrutiny. Most parents I heard interviewed on the radio yesterday spoke of the enormous benefits their families gain from involvement in the SLS community: not one questioned whether some Little Lifesavers are perhaps too fearless. One or two dissenting voices did, however, question the wisdom of youngsters competing in 'challenging conditions'. Kurrawa is a very open beach, exposed to big waves, and has two sand bars that produce heavy wave-breaking. Impact injuries are much more likely when paddles and boards are being tossed around in big surf.
One father spoke of the pressure put on his daughter to take part when conditions made her instinctively hesitant and fearful. Australians' drive to be successful in sport comes from deep within their psyche. As a nation, they are very good at many sports, but the downside is a tendency to overconfidence and a disappointment when they lose that can appear unsporting.
Kids get out and active and play sport as if their lives depended upon it, whether it's fishing or footie. But swimming is perhaps the most fundamental skill required: if you're not strong in the water then you may as well walk out into the bush.
* Bondi Surf Bathers' Life Saving Club was formed in 1907
This post was updated on 31 March 2012