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Exploring the Australian lifestyle: Surf Lifesaving

Surfing encapsulates the great Australian way of life and the sport shares many similarities with golf in that it presents the ideal opportunity to be healthy, active and positive. Here we investigate the Australian lifestyle.

Dr Greg Reddan, Griffith University

Australians have always loved the beach and surfing has become a national pastime, however, statistics demonstrate that the ocean presents many dangers. The volunteer surf lifesaving movement was born in 1907 at Bondi beach in Sydney to protect and save the lives of the bathing public. Surf lifesaving clubs emerged and regular patrols provided relief to local authorities and swimmers. In 1910 members of North Steyne SLSC (near Manly) were the first members to gain their bronze medallion, whilst the inaugural national titles were conducted in 1915 at the famous Bondi beach. Other significant developments in the history of the movement included the adoption of Expired Air Resuscitation (mouth-to-mouth), the testing of jet and inshore rescue boats, as well as helicopter surveillance and rescue in the 1960s. The World Lifesaving body was formed in Sydney in 1971, closely followed by the introduction of the Nipper movement in 1973. The movement was a male-dominated domain until 1980 when females became eligible to become active patrolling members. The famous red-and- yellow flags became the standard Australian water safety symbol in the same year and the gruelling ‘Coolangatta Gold’ endurance event was first won by Guy Leech from Manly SLSC in 1884. The bronzed Aussie surf lifesaver was promoted to the world in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Surf lifesaving has saved more than 600,000 lives, currently about 12,000 per year. The organisation provides emergency care to 35,000 people and safety advice to more than 600,000 per year. The surf lifesaving movement is the largest volunteer organisation in the nation and has indeed become an icon of the Australian landscape.

Dr Greg Reddan

Men and women have joined clubs for many reasons, in addition to the desire to save lives. Competition, mateship, enjoyment of the surf and assisting the local community still remain the strongest motivations for involvement. The current positioning statement of the Australian SLSA reflects a positive attitude to inspire and motivate the nation to be healthy, active and live the great Australian way of life: “For every Australian, young and old, Surf Life Saving embodies and inspires a truly positive and uniquely Australian attitude, because every member, every club, the entire movement embraces and promotes a can-do attitude to life”. Trained surf lifesavers spend more than 1.3 million hours patrolling our beaches, pools and coastlines. Surf lifesaving support services provide rapid motorised response units, which are on-call 24 hours per day to ensure our beaches and waterways are safe.

However, the movement is more than saving lives – surf lifesaving seeks to engage all Australians through education and community programs. Public and school education programs teach  Australians about beach and water safety to protect their own lives and possibly save others. Rural children are not forgotten with the Telstra Beach to Bush program with trained surf lifesavers travelling to regional and remove areas to educate the locals about beach and water safety. In the last decade the program has travelled more than 100,000 kilometres and addressed more than 135,000 students in over 1000 schools. Surf lifesaving is an inclusive organisation catering for all Australians, regardless of gender, age, cultural background or physical ability with their On the Same Wave and Sport Connect programs. The movement demonstrates responsibility for the protection of coastal biodiversity and our precious coastline through the Ecosurf program. Training is an essential component of the movement’s activities. Courses range from basic surf rescue, first aid and resuscitation, workplace training and assessment, to postgraduate qualifications in Coastal Management. All patrolling and competing members must complete an annual Proficiency test to maintain their fitness, skills and knowledge of current practices. Surf Life Saving assists many allied lifesaving organisations around the world to reduce injury and death in, on and around the water.  In 2009-10 assistance was provided to 25 countries, with 20 in the Asia-Pacific region. SLS is involved in research activities to support the development of education, technology, communications and operations to reduce coastal drowning deaths in Australia. The SLS Research scheme was introduced in 2010 to provide rigour into the design and provide funding for targeted and priority research projects.

Surf Life Saving employs 700 paid lifeguards in all states of Australia, one of the largest providers in the world. The Australian Lifeguard Service provides services to local government councils and land managers around the country. The ALS sets international standards through quality national accredited training, highly skilled staff and stringent operating practices. ‘Nippers’ is a junior SLS program that introduces children aged 5 to 13 to surf lifesaving. The program focuses on activity and fun to increase their confidence and teach them valuable life skills and knowledge. The Nipper pathway allows children to continue in lifesaving and sport as they grow older.

Competition has always played an important part in surf lifesaving. Branch and state titles lead up to ‘The Aussies’ each year, where up to 10,000 competitors chase elusive gold medals. The championships were first held in heavy seas at Bondi in 1915 and have grown into one of the nations’ premier sporting events. Almost 100 years later, ‘The Aussies’ remains as a prestigious celebration of lifesaving in all its forms. Competition is provided in the traditional surfboats, Rescue and Resuscitation, march past, surf and belt events, as well as ski and board races, beach sprints and flags and endurance runs. World titles were first held in 1988 at Southport, Queensland and are conducted on alternate years at venues around the globe. The Ironman and Ironwoman are perhaps the pinnacle of the events, as they involve the competitors negotiating their way around the buoys three times through the swim, board and ski legs. Legends such as Grant Kenny, Trevor Hendy, Ky Hurst, Karla Gilbert, Hayley Bateup, Zane Holmes, Shannon and Caine Eckstein have become household names through the promotion of the event through a nationally televised series. Surf lifesaving has certainly come a long way in the last century and encapsulates the spirit of Australia.

Dr Greg Reddan and students


Jaggard, E. (2007). Between the Flags. UNSW Press: Sydney.

Surf Life Saving Australia:

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