Field notes

Changing face of Bondi's lifeguards

MS MECCA LAALAA HADID, Australia’s first female Muslim lifeguard (above), wearing a specially designed burkini uniform.
MS MECCA LAALAA HADID, Australia’s first female Muslim lifeguard (above), wearing a specially designed burkini uniform.
The children’s doctor is a volunteer patrol supervisor (left, in yellow top) for the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club.
The children’s doctor is a volunteer patrol supervisor (left, in yellow top) for the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club. PHOTOS: JONATHAN PEARLMAN
Ms Pastiras, an architect, is happiest when she does her lifesaving work.
Ms Pastiras, an architect, is happiest when she does her lifesaving work.
Dr Hotton (above) says being a member of his local club at Bondi makes him feel a part of the community.
Dr Hotton (above) says being a member of his local club at Bondi makes him feel a part of the community.

No longer just white males, members include women, Muslims, asylum seekers

During the week, 27-year-old Ms Katerina Pastiras works long days in Sydney as an architect at a busy city firm.

On weekends, she heads to Sydney’s Bondi beach to fulfil her duties in her second vocation – as a volunteer lifesaver.

Wearing the trademark red and yellow uniform of the nation’s lifesavers, Ms Pastiras is a volunteer member of the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club. She does two shifts of about five hours each a month throughout the summer.

During a morning patrol on a hot Sunday last month, Ms Pastiras spoke to The Straits Times as she kept an eye out for threats or for swimmers struggling in the ocean.

It was 10am – her shift was from 7.45am to 1pm – and there were already thousands of people sunbaking or enjoying the surf at Bondi, one of the country’s best-known beaches.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “It is a community thing, a way to give back. You also learn really important life skills, including CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and how to understand the water.”

For visitors to beaches in this surf-obsessed nation, these red and yellow uniformed lifesavers are a common and often reassuring sight. 

They are among the 170,000 members of Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA), which is believed to be the largest volunteer movement in the world.

MUSLIMS ARE AUSSIES TOO

It’s important for people to see who Muslims are and that we’re just as Aussie as anybody else.

MS MECCA LAALAA HADID, Australia’s first female Muslim lifeguard wearing a specially designed burkini uniform.

But visitors may have noticed that the face of the average Australian lifeguard has been changing.

In recent years, the organisation has been trying to move beyond its stereotypical image of a bronzed, blonde-haired Anglo male lifeguard as Australian society becomes more multiracial and multicultural.

Keen to keep its membership growing and ensure it remains welcoming to all potential volunteers, the organisation has been recruiting women, foreign-born residents and, more recently, asylum seekers.

EVOLVING MEMBERSHIP

The organisation has become more socially and culturally aware.You goto today’s beaches and you will see a broad diversity among the members.It is not just a white male Anglo-Saxon background. It does not matter what country you come from, it is about saving a life and giving back to the community.
 
MR SHANEDAW, SLSA’s coastal risk and safety manager, on how the association is maintaining its relevance to society.

“The organisation has become more socially and culturally aware,” Mr Shane Daw, SLSA’s coastal risk and safety manager, told The Straits Times. 

“You go to today’s beaches and you will see a broad diversity among the members. It is not just a white male Anglo-Saxon background.”

He added: “It does not matter what country you come from, it is about saving a life and giving back to the community.”

‘WAKE-UP CALL’

The history of SLSA has long reflected social and cultural changes in Australia.

The nation’s first lifesaving club was formed at Bondi in early 1907.

This followed a series of ad hoc patrols conducted at Sydney beaches between 1902 and 1905 after the local authorities removed bans on bathing in daylight – an act previously deemed immoral.

People soon rushed to the beach, but many had poor swimming skills. Patrol clubs began to form – and its members, according to historians, quickly gained iconic status.

Last year, SLSA members patrolled hundreds of the nation’s most popular beaches for more than 1.3 million hours and performed about 13,000 rescues.

The organisation estimates it has saved more than 640,000 lives since its founding in 1907.

Its members now range in age from five-year-old trainee lifeguards to volunteers in their 90s.

But the drive to make the association more culturally diverse took on added urgency after ugly race riots around Sydney’s Cronulla beach in 2005.

The riots were sparked by an assault on two Caucasian lifesavers by men believed to be of Middle Eastern background. The attack followed brewing tensions around Cronulla and led to violent clashes between crowds of “Anglo” Australians and people of “Middle Eastern appearance”.

The ugly beachside scenes shocked the nation and prompted fresh efforts by the lifesaver association to engage with local ethnic communities.

Following the riots, an analysis in 2007 by two senior officials in the association noted that “SLSA has remained essentially a white, Anglo- Celtic organisation”.

It said the Cronulla riots were “a wake-up call to both the SLSA and the Australian community”.

“If  SLSA is to maintain its relevance as a community-based organisation, then it needs to reflect a membership base that is more representative of the Australian community,” the analysis said.

Following the riots, several programmes were developed, including cultural-awareness training for lifesavers and the recruitment of Middle Eastern volunteers.

The association changed its uniform requirements to allow people to wear suitable attire that met their religious or cultural needs.

This led to Australia’s first female Muslim lifeguard, Ms Mecca Laalaa Hadid, making international headlines after she wore a specially designed burkini uniform to patrol Cronulla beach.

The design, by Australian Muslim designer Aheda Zanetti, was in the familiar yellow and red colours of the nation’s lifesavers and has since become internationally famous.

Recalling her experience of being a poster child for the integration and acceptance of the Muslim Australian community, Ms Hadid told an interviewer in 2013 that she hoped it had broken down stereotypes of Muslim women as “uneducated and slaves in the home”. “It’s important for people to see who Muslims are and that we’re just as Aussie as anybody else,”she said.

ONE FOR ALL, ALL FOR ONE

In addition to its efforts to engage the Muslim community, the lifesavers association explicitly attempted to avoid the use of “stereotypical images” of lifesavers in marketing and advertising.

The cover of its most recent annual report, for instance, showed a young female lifesaver alongside an Asian-looking man.

One of its community schemes, called On The Same Wave, involves consulting with local leaders and running school programmes in classrooms and at the beach to promote awareness of the association and to try to attract recruits.

In recent years, the scheme has attempted to reach out to refugees and asylum seekers. Some cannot swim and must be taught basic swimming before learning skills such as first aid and identifying dangerous rips and currents.

An asylum seeker from Iran who participated in the programme, Mr Mahyar Rezaei, eventually became a lifesaver in the southern city of Adelaide. He expressed “excitement” at working alongside his Australian colleagues in an interview with ABC News last year.

“All of them (lifesavers), they are friendly and welcoming; it’s really nice,” said Mr Rezaei.

The association’s other big shift in recent years has been its efforts to encourage female participation.

Women were admitted as patrol members only in 1980 but are on track to make up half of all lifesavers. Before 1980, they had been limited to helping out at fund-raisers or women’s competitions.

Of the 170,000 current members, 94,000 – or 55 per cent – are men, and 76,000 – or 45 per cent – are women. By comparison, just 33 per cent of the 76,000 members were women in 1995.

During the patrol at Bondi beach observed by The Straits Times last month,about half of the20or so volunteers on duty were women. Mr Daw said many of the women had better swimming and surf skills than the men.

“The changing gender mix has opened up a lot of opportunities to evolve and mature,” he said. “To cut out half the population is ludicrous.”

The lifesavers are spread across 312 surf clubs. Many of their rescues involve tourists, who sometimes have poor swimming skills and are often unfamiliar with local surf conditions.

To become a lifesaver, members must typically be at least 15 years old and complete a training course.

This usually includes a first aid exam, a simulated rescue, and a400m swim in less than nine minutes.

Dr Paul Hotton, 35, a patrol supervisor whose regular job is as a children’s doctor, said he became a lifesaver after moving to Australia from England in 2010. Being a member of his local club at Bondi had helped him to meet people and feel a part of the local community,he said.

“They (the volunteers) become your network,” he told The Straits Times. “Everyone here wants to be part of the surf club. We don’t struggle to get new members.”

Ms Pastiras, who has been a lifesaver since 2014, said her most memorable rescue occurred last year when she used a rescue tube to help a flailing Chinese tourist who was caught in a rip. The man did not seem to realise how much danger he had been in though.

“I think he thought it was a bit of a ride,” said Ms Pastiras. She said she had no qualms about giving up half a day from her weekend every two weeks or so. “My job is really long hours,” she said. “It is pretty intense and stressful. This is such a good break. This is where I am at my happiest.”

Jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline ''. Print Edition | Subscribe