The History of Surf Life Saving in Australia
Surf Life Saving Australia is a not-for-profit organisation that provides water safety, drowning prevention and surf rescue services.
Australia's first official surf lifesaving club (and the first in the world) was founded on Bondi Beach in 1906. Local by-laws had banned daylight bathing since the 1830s, but these rules had gradually been rescinded in response to evolving moral views, and the increasing popularity of ocean and beach activities.
Sydney newspaper editor William Gocher famously challenged the laws at Manly Beach in October 1902, by announcing his intention to swim at midday. Although police escorted him from the beach, he was not charged with any crime, and in November 1903 Manly Council legalised all-day swimming.
As bathers began to enter the surf in increasing numbers, the frequency of drownings escalated. Even strong swimmers had difficulty negotiating unfamiliar rip currents and the ever-changing surf conditions. Australians had embraced the ocean as a place of recreation, but the dangers of the surf, and the need for lifeguards became increasing apparent.
So on the 18th of October 1907, representatives from the Royal Life Saving Society, along with nine volunteer surf clubs, founded the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales. This association later became known as Surf Life Saving Australia. Their regular patrols provided welcome reassurance to inexperienced beachgoers and local councils.
Then in 1923, a signage system for all patrolled beaches was developed. The original system used blue and white flags to mark safe swimming areas, and red flags to warn of dangerous sections. The familiar red and yellow flags were later introduced in 1935, although the colours were initially divided diagonally, rather than horizontally.
On the 6th February 1938, Australia experienced its largest ever mass surf rescue, when freak waves engulfed hundreds of bathers on Bondi Beach, washing them out to sea in a tragedy that became known as Black Sunday.
Today, an estimated 100 million visitors per year enjoy the 12,000 beaches dispersed along Australia's 36,000km coastline. The vast majority of Australia's population live near the ocean, and the beach has always has been the place to which millions of Australians escape for fun and relaxation.
Most lifesaving services are provided by SLSA volunteers, who clock up more than 1.4 million hours of service each year. In 1973, SLSA established the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service, which performs over 1000 helicopter rescue missions per year. Women have been involved as active patrolling members since 1980, and surf lifesavers have rescued over 615,000 beachgoers since 1907.
With over 166,000 members and 311 surf clubs, Surf Life Saving has grown to become Australia's largest volunteer organisation, and one of the largest volunteer groups in the world.
SLSA is also a vital focal point of Australia's many beach communities, bringing local families and friends together each week. They meet for regular patrols, competitions, social events, and of course, Nippers.
Over 60,000 SLSA members are young lifesavers, called Nippers, aged between 5-13 years old. Nipper programs have existed since the 1920s, but the early programs operated differently under each club. Some accepted only boys, while others ran separate programs for girls.
The national Nippers program was established in the 1960s, when falling membership had resulted in many surf clubs facing closure. The new national program reinvigorated the surf life saving movement, helping to create strong community bonds since the parents of many Nippers were also encouraged to join and become active members.
Nippers congregate on Australia's beaches on weekend mornings during the summer months, as thousands of young Australians develop the confidence, ability and surf awareness needed for their future role as our next generation of lifesavers.
SLSA is also a founding member of the International Life Saving Federation, which plays a key role in developing worldwide beach safety, drowning prevention and lifesaving standards. Australia is recognised as the international leader in surf life saving, with modern clubs employing sophisticated technology including helicopters, jet boats, jet skis, IRBs and drones. Australian advances in rescue methods and resuscitation techniques have been adopted by life saving organisations around the globe.
Surf Life Saving Australia ensures the safety of our coastal environments, through patrols, education, training, risk assessment, public safety campaigns and the promotion of health and fitness. Funding comes primarily from donations and corporate sponsorship.
The SLSA Research Scheme was created in 2010. A dedicated research program, its objective is to reduce drowning deaths through analysis of statistical and analytical data, thus aiding the development of new education, technology, communications and operational techniques.
SLSA also operates Australia's largest paid lifeguard service, with over 2000 professional lifeguards contracting to local governments and coastal land managers.
Patrolling members must be competent swimmers, and must possess skills in rescue methods, resuscitation techniques, and first aid. These skills are taught and assessed as part of the Bronze Medallion syllabus - the entry level surf life saving qualification.
Education includes theory and practical training, as well as an assessment of patrol and rescue abilities. Volunteers must be aged 15 years or over to attain the Bronze Medallion award.
Bronze Medallion holders are encouraged to further expand their skills through additional training in Emergency Care, Powercraft, IRB, Beach Management, Aquatic Rescue, and Training and Assessment. Lifesavers must also participate in annual skills refresh sessions, and pass an annual proficiency test, to ensure they maintain their ability and fitness levels.
In 2004, the Australian Government declared 2007 the Year of the Surf Lifesaver, allocating A$1 million in funding over three years for SLSA to celebrate its centenary.
And the movement doesn't exist only to save lives. Members can participate in a wide range of surf sports and beach activities. Regular lifesaving events and surf carnivals offer a unique opportunity for lifesavers to maintain their fitness and hone their skills, while also satisfying their competitive spirit.
For more information on the history of Surf Life Saving in Australia, please watch the YouTube videos to the right of this page.
Between The Flags: A History Of Surf Lifesaving
Surf Patrol (1950) shows the work of the volunteer lifesavers who patrol Australia's dangerous surf beaches, saving hundreds of lives each year.
1989 Surf Life Saving Australia TV Commercial
2002 Surf Life Saving Australia TV Commercial
A 2007 video made for Year of the Surf Lifesaver showcasing the important work performed SLSA
2008 Surf Life Saving Australia TV Commercial
2010 Surf Life Saving Australia TV Commercial
Lifeguard Service: Turn Your Passion Into Pay
Help Surf Life Saving save more lives this summer
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