Lifesaving for 50 years and counting

By Liz Ginis 16 September 2010
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Meet Max Sainsbury, Australia’s longest serving surf lifesaver.

AUSTRALIA’S LONGEST-SERVING LIFESAVER, Max Sainsbury sports a peak of chestnut hair and a nuggety physique lacquered teak by 52 years of service under the Australian sun. All but born in the surf, the 71-year-old still takes to the water most days. Dipping his paddle into the briny, he propels his signature apple-red waveski beyond the breakers before parking in the sweet spot to wait for waves.

Max joined the Avoca Beach Surf Life Saving Club in 1955. “I’d been coming to Avoca [on the NSW Central Coast] since I was a baby,” he says. “When I was around 11, I started hanging out with my idols – the surf club guys. I loved how they were so respected by the community. They saved people’s lives.”

Borrowing their ‘stickboards’, 17-foot (5-m) plywood planks, Max would paddle out past the break and dream of rescuing people himself. By 14, he had his own stickboard and a year later his Bronze Medallion.

According to Max, his first solo rescue involved an imagined ailment, a home-cooked breakfast and eight floundering people. “I was 17, it was a Friday, and the surf was up,” he says by way of explaining his sickie from plying his trade as an apprentice fitter and turner.

“After the surf, I went back to Nan’s house [200 m from the beach] for breakfast. Digging into my eggs, I heard a commotion – people screaming – and Nan saying ‘Maxie, people are in trouble.’ I ran down to the beach, grabbed my board and paddled out to where they were struggling in a rip. Once they had something to hang onto – a floating platform – we all kicked back to the beach. I learned a pretty valuable lesson that day: the first line of defence in any rescue is giving people something to hold onto. After that, unless it’s an extreme case, they’re pretty much going to be okay.”

At 20, Max put this theory into practice on a full-time basis when he became a paid 9-5 beach inspector during the Christmas holiday period. “Nan used to deliver baked dinners to me because, as the sole lifesaver, I couldn’t leave the beach,” Max says.

“Some days, after a pretty hectic morning, I’d be starving and there she’d be, marching across the sand. The young guys of today, three or so on patrol at a time, with jet skis, rubber duckies and radio comms don’t know how easy they’ve got it. They reckon there are more people on the beach now, but that’s not true. Back when I started, there were camping grounds right behind the dunes and they were always swarming with people. There wasn’t even room enough to pop your beach umbrella.”

AT 26, AS A full-time high school teacher, rostered lifesaver and husband to his sweetheart Rhonda, Max built the family home five minutes drive from his beach. “He can’t be away from it,” says Rhonda. “We’ll head inland, on holiday, and after a few days he starts pining for the salt water.”

This affinity has seen Max patrol during the line-and-reel or, as he recounts, “death-trap” days. “The belts had a quick release but the salt water would corrode the pin and it’d stick, dragging you under if they wound in too fast,” he says. Still a fan of the traditional stick, and later, Malibu boards, Max is also completely conversant with today’s rubber duckie and Oxy Viva, the latest oxygen-revival instrument.

“You can fit about eight people in the rubber duckie, which can make mass rescues much less labour intensive,” he says. During his five decades as a lifesaver, Max has clocked up more than 100 rescues, on average two a year. “I love lifesaving and being there for people,” he says, with no hint of bravado. So much so that despite a complete knee reconstruction, required after an October rescue during the 2005-06 season, the stoic Max was back on monthly patrol in December.

Only once has a rescue turned sour. Max was called upon to help find a woman who’d disappeared while swimming outside patrol hours. “A man came stumbling out of the surf saying he’d had her but let go because it was either ‘her or me’,” Max says, eyes clouding, ocean blue to steel grey. “Two mates and I swam out, triangulated the area she’d been in, but after 20 minutes found nothing. Then I went with the rip and at the end of it, there she was – her bottom facing up. I turned her over and knew she was gone, but I had to try [to revive her]. My mate paddled over, saw her, and pulled away in horror. I came home and cried that night. We all did. It was a very traumatic experience. I’ll never forget it.”

Now retired from teaching, Max mixes his patrol work with breeding Japanese koi. Three 20 m wide tanks, black mesh-covered spots in the gently sloping paddock behind his home, bubble with fish. “I try to breed very rare ones, different colours,” he says. “I’ve always loved fish – it’s another link with the water.”

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 48 (Oct – Dec, 2006). [Editor’s note: Some of the figures in this story have been updated to make it accurate for 2010.]