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Byron Shire
May 14, 2021

Watching the lifesavers watching you

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My letters regarding Byron Bay surf lifesavers, describing my real-life observations on the beach and rather modest suggestions for improvement, were written off as a ‘rant’ by Dan McCabe and ‘rubbish’ by Heather Black, who castigated Echonetdaily for even publishing them. What price freedom of speech?

The big problem with the letters written in reply to mine is that all of the writers seem to equate ‘criticism’ with ‘not caring’, or somehow ‘anti’. This is not true. Additionally, none of the letters actually addresses the points I raised, preferring instead to just tell me what a dolt I am.

In his letter, Rob Siebert mentions the lifesavers who patrol the beach, and Heather Black tells us that ‘their patrols can be at least six hours in the hot sun and glare’ (the same hot sun and glare that the tourists so love), and even Chris Larkin tells me that, should I join the club, I could be out patrolling the beach. Which all brings me back to the main point of my original letter: that the surf lifesavers do not, in my experience, appear to patrol at all!

That was the nub of my criticism. I have been walking these beaches at least once a week for the past couple of years and I have never yet seen a lifesaver anywhere on the beach except in very close proximity to the 50-metre flagged area. (Did I get them on a bad day?) And my suggestion that they might spread out a bit more was not made out of malice, but simply out of a desire to make the beaches safer without much additional effort. My comments about corralling people into a minute flagged swimming area and the very real dangers that lurk therein were simply ignored by all correspondents. I am genuinely interested to know why we must have these ridiculously small flagged stretches of beach, where people are crowded in like sardines, on a beach several kilometres long. Perhaps there is a logical reason? If so, will someone please tell me instead of just slagging me off.

Much is made in the letters of the fact that the surf lifesavers are working voluntarily, as if that somehow makes things different.

Unfortunately, work is work and whether the lifesavers are volunteers or not does not alter the nature or scope of the job to be done on the beaches (lifesaving), nor the need to do it. And, like it or not, Byron Shire Council does pay $175,000 per year for ‘surf lifesaving services’. (Check the budget.)

Thanks for the invites to join the club. Were my circumstances different, and I were much younger, I would have loved to. (I grew up in a landlocked country, but was a beach bum for a couple of years in my youth, before growing up took over as a priority.) I am retired now and I have two volunteer jobs, from which I get a great deal of satisfaction. Thus my spare time is pretty well taken up.

Colin Thornton

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  1. Colin, the surf clubs choose only a small area (sometimes up to 50m wide.. so not so small) to set up the flags to make it safer for the swimmers. I am a member at Tugun SLSC and we conduct roving patrols (in the ATV/ IRB and walking) numerous times during the day and it’s also a policy to have life savers on the waters edge at all times, I believe most clubs do this, so maybe you are just unlucky in that you havn’t seen them…

    have you looked out to sea? there are jet boats and jetskis that ride past every half hour (at least) and in the sky there’s a helicopter that continuously passes to keep an eye out.

    Beaches such as Kirra have the luxury of a lot of surf club members and therefore have set up another safe area further north of their usual patrol to combat the issue of people not wanting to be ‘squashed together like sardines’.

    Perhaps the answer is simply that some surf clubs need to ensure that the patrolling members are actually completing the roving patrols that they are meant to.

    Personally I take my hat off to all the volunteers that have and will continue to save people’s lives on our beaches.

  2. My understanding is that the SLSC patrol has the job of identifying the safest part of the beach for swimming and patrolling that area. Seems very sensible to me, and the results speak for themselves with no lives lost between flags. The lifesavers can’t possibly keep the entire coast 100% safe. They do frequently patrol in the IRBs and little four wheel drive Rhinos up and down the beach, but I believe they should focus on the area designated as safest. As the mum of a young life saver (Brunswick), I don’t want to see the lifesavers spread out thinly on the beach as I believe this would put them at risk, leaving too few to patrol the flagged area. Colin, do you suggest we have all the rescue equipment replicated all along the beaches? How would the cost of that compare to the cost you mentioned in your letter.

    As for Colin’s assertion that lifesavers aren’t actually patrolling, my son, still school age, patrolled over 150 hours in the last season. He patrolled most weekends. He was up and down the beach in the rhino and out in the IRB, and also learning skills and practising rescues whilst on the patrol. So not just huddled together by the flags Colin!

    Not only in the sun and glare either, these patrol members are out there on the wet, windy days too. And unlike the tourists you refer to, they don’t get to leave for a cool drink and a lie down when they have had enough sun. On some of the horrible days when the beach is officially closed, people sometimes ignore the signs and still go in, and take young children in with them. These fabulous life savers are sometimes abused when they remind people the beach is not safe, and still are prepared to pull these foolhardy people out when they get in trouble.

    Colin, I don’t believe the people who answered you are against freedom of speech, maybe just against non constructive whinging.

  3. Well Colin,
    I have to agree with you.
    I have been a beach-goer my entire life, having grown up on the Sunshine Coast and now a local here in the Byron region.
    Whilst I appauld the efforts and committments of Surf Life Savers right around the country, they are definitely a taboo subject for commentary.
    To add to your comments though, our family regularly observes that not only are hundreds of swimmers often ‘penned in’ to the flags, but often with only one or two SLSsitting back in a tent/trailer/vehicle well away from the action and not apearing to be in any way ‘alert’ to what’s happening. Also, the flags often appear to be situated in very unsafe positions.
    We tend to still try and swim between the lags with our kids because whenever we hear SLS commenting on drownings they make it clear they do not monitor any other parts of the beach.
    Sometimes though it is quite obvious there are safer sections to swim in.


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