Nippers: our future surf life saving heroes

By Erin O'Dwyer June 23, 2011
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The emphasis is on fun as these novices confront watery demons and learn skills that could one day save a life.

IT’S 9.15 ON a mid-summer Sunday morning and 800 children are wriggling on Coogee Beach, 7km south-east of central Sydney. Coogee Minnows captain Tass Karozis, 43, is at the top of the stairs in the middle of the beach, recounting a story of how two Nippers – budding surf lifesavers, like the kids before him now – saved a man’s life in northern NSW during the recent school holidays. 

“I emerged face down and began to go under again,” Tass reads from an email over the loudspeaker. “Jackson and Lachlan swam to my aid, lifted my head out of the water and swam me towards the rock ledge. I was unconscious at the time.” 

It’s an inspiring tale of courage and quick thinking and its retelling has the desired effect, snapping the sleepy crowd to attention. “I’ve got goosebumps,” says father-of-two Gareth Jones. “What a fantastic thing to have done.”

The weather is overcast and inky seaweed is clumped along the high-tide line, but the crush of tourists won’t be deterred. Neither will the volunteer surf patrol assigned to duty from the local Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) club’s grown-up ranks. 

“People think of Coogee as a safe beach, but it’s actually quite dangerous,” says Gareth. “We don’t have many rips but there’s the shore dump. The waves dump on the shore and the water gets sucked up as it breaks. We won’t let the kids get on the big waves because they go head first into the sand.” The risk of neck and spinal injuries can be high at Coogee. 

The Minnows is Australia’s oldest continuously operating Nippers club. It was formed in 1956 to boost surf-lifesaving membership, which it succeeded in doing. Other clubs followed suit, green-eyed over Coogee’s swelling ranks and competitive edge in surf-racing championships. By the mid-1960s, SLSA was rolling out a nationwide Nippers program.

It’s a simple concept. Beach sprints, games of tug-of-war and board races around floating ‘cans’ are a fun way to teach surf safety. In truth, the Nippers program continues to be a critical recruitment drive. Nowadays, smaller surf clubs across the country struggle to fill their summer beach patrols each year. Shoalhaven Heads, south of Wollongong, had 11 Nippers until a publicity blitz last year swelled its ranks to 83. When several Nippers’ parents achieved the bronze medallion – giving them the skills and beach-safety knowledge to enable them to join the patrol – it was mission accomplished. 

Most Sunday mornings in summer at Coogee, the weekly Nippers program begins with lines of little lemmings in navy blue swimmers and white ‘rashies’, descending towards the beach from surrounding houses, apartments, streets and car parks. On the beach, the different age groupings – Under-6 to Under-14 – are marked out by coloured caps. The parents who are water-safety officers stand out in neon-green lycra. It’s also impossible to miss the blue and yellow flags blazoned with sponsors’ slogans that stake out the northern end of the beach: an indication that, like most other modern volunteer movements, Nippers relies on, and even courts, corporate sponsorship.

Almost every SLSA club has junior ranks: from Port Douglas on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, to Broome in Western Australia’s north-west, to Burnie on Tasmania’s north-west coast. And junior numbers continue to swell – last summer saw an increase of 4000 Nippers, or 8 per cent, nationally.

More than 150,000 Australians are surf club members, in about 300 clubs. Of those members, 57,000 are Nippers – almost 40 per cent – a growth rate partly attributed to the popularity of lifesaving docu-dramas Bondi Rescue and Surf Patrol. With membership costing about $60 per child each season, Nippers is also seen as an affordable, family-friendly activity.

Family involvement

The Minnows is the second-largest Nippers club in NSW, with 830 kids last summer – a record for Coogee – just behind North Bondi with 844. Late registrations are usually taken on the beach as the season begins, but by last October the Minnows had already closed its books.

“Some parents want their kids to go on a waiting list but I can’t manage that sort of thing,” says Tass Karozis, a futures trader in his paid job. “One lady emailed me last week and said her son was two and could he go on the enrolment list for 2014?” Tass was gobsmacked. “I said, ‘No, we’re not a school’. I only take live enrolments.”

Tass attributes the club’s strength to support from parents. There is an anti ‘drop-and-run’ policy – they must remain on the beach. Many take the hint and become involved. Last summer there were 250 parent helpers, along with 150 water-safety officers and nine age-group managers. About 70 per cent of the Minnows membership is from the Coogee area. The balance is from Sydney’s western suburbs, up to an hour’s drive away.

“The hardest thing is encouraging the kids who aren’t going to be superstars [to believe] that they are stars too,” says former Wallabies captain Simon Poidevin. Now a banking executive, Simon became a Minnows age manager when the youngest of his three children was six. He is now 14.

Last year, one of his charges asked to leave. “I said come back next year and have another go,” says Simon. “It’s difficult, but you just speak to the parents and hope that they understand.”  Nippers’ philosophy is to instil the importance of sticking at the job. It also teaches kids to know their own limits.

The attrition rate among teens is frustratingly high. Only one in five Nippers goes on to the senior SLSA ranks and thus on to patrol. Some in the surf club scene say that’s cheating; there’s an unspoken obligation for Nippers who graduate at 14 to give back to the organisation by joining the weekend beach patrol.

However, some kids are put off by the excessive organisation, competition and regimen. Others just become too busy with school or the opposite sex, explains Professor Ed Jaggard, the SLSA’s official historian, now retired from Edith Cowan University. In 1950 Ed joined WA’s Cottesloe SLSA club as a subjunior, or juvenile (as Nippers were known in WA then), and in 2006 he edited Between The Flags, to commemorate SLSA’s 100th anniversary.

“A lot of people say we are running a child-minding service,” says Ed, before explaining the true significance of Nippers. “Even if the kids leave the club, they have been equipped with some valuable lifelong skills. They also get exposed to a body that has a real national significance and which stands for something in Australian society.”

SLSA development manager Vanessa Brown agrees. “Nippers are our lifesavers in training and it is quite unique to our organisation,” she says. “Other emergency services don’t have the option of recruiting members from the age of five. It is a definite benefit.” Vanessa adds that Nippers often becomes a family affair. “It’s often club policy that when a parent signs up their child, they also commit to helping in some way – it may be doing the odd job, from manning the barbecue to cleaning the trophies, coordinating and delivering Nippers to water safety. Many parents end up getting their Bronze and becoming patrolling members, often when their children are qualified to also patrol – they will patrol together.

“The teenage drop-out rate is an issue aired on clubhouse agendas and in private conversations between ‘clubbies’. But on Sundays on Coogee Beach, with the salt spray swirling in a mist and breakfast barbecues sizzling on the headland, it’s far from most parents’ minds.

“If you live in Australia, you have to learn how to swim at the beach,” says mother-of-two Ann Evans, echoing the thoughts of each Nipper parent I speak to. “The most important thing apart from being able to read and write in Australia is to learn to swim.” Ann and her family travel to Coogee from Glebe, a 30-minute drive away in Sydney’s inner west. Other families come from even more distant Penrith, Parramatta and the Hills District, on the city’s western and north-western fringes.

“The kids who live around here are down here every day,” says Ann. “My kids are only here once a week so they are noticeably weaker in the water.”

Her eldest son Jack started when he was five but was extremely shy and didn’t like the chaos. Then Simon Poidevin took him out on a board on his own and Jack said: “Wow, this is really peaceful out here.”

Now, Jack is 14 and he and his father Warwick Stewart do their own thing at the other end of the beach. Ann describes it as “private Nippers”. She never expected Jack to become a lifesaver but she is proud to see her son enjoying the surf. “It’s really special bonding time for him and his dad,” she says, watching her other son, 11-year-old William, elbow his way through the Under-12s’ beach-sprint final. “William is much more robust and competitive,” she says, laughing.

On this morning, however, William was trying to wheedle his way out of Nippers. In January, he was badly sunburnt at a surf camp and feared going back into the sun. “I found him at the computer at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning doing his homework,” says Ann, chuckling. She adds sheepishly: “I made him come. I don’t think he’ll ever get burnt again. But it’s part of growing up, isn’t it? There was sunscreen everywhere that weekend, but he didn’t put it on.”

Almost every Nipper joins up at their parents’ urging. Michael ‘Humphrey’ Cantarella joined nearby Clovelly when he was seven because his dad, a local businessman, sponsored the club. Now he brings his four children to Coogee each Sunday.

Bill Vasilis, too, has been involved for most of his life – since he was 14. “I used to get off the bus from school in Havelock Avenue and get my surfboard [from home] and be back down the beach and the bus was still going down Arden Street,” he says. These Coogee streets are spitting distance from each other: it’s a surfer’s tale of just how fast he was getting down to the sand. Bill is now an age manager. So is his wife Sam. They have two boys, aged 11 and 14. “I believe any kid who lives east of Anzac Parade should be involved in Nippers,” says Bill. “Any kid, anywhere, really.” 

Lifesavers of tomorrow 

Even for the most rambunctious Aussie kid, the swell can seem a threat. Each Sunday at Coogee, Gareth Jones and his wife Veronica run a confidence class for stragglers. They teach them ‘chicken legs’ to run down the small waves, and to ‘duck and dive’ under the big ones.

At the beginning of the summer, I meet Lauren Leung, 8, who is petrified of the water and literally shakes. Sanishka Balasooriya, 10, doesn’t mind the water but he’s not a strong swimmer. He wears a wetsuit – a safety blanket, perhaps – and its buoyancy stops him from duck diving. He crashes through the shore break, arms flailing, face full of water. Hugo Larsen, 9, is a good swimmer but he’s scared of the waves. He turns his head from the spray and won’t dive.

Gareth’s own girls are here too. Unlike the others, Annalise, 10, and Nicola, 8, aren’t Nipper newbies, but panic spreads across their faces and their little bodies tense with fear when it’s time to get in. “Some kids won’t want to touch the water, some won’t want to dive under, others won’t want to swim,” says Gareth, a car-parts factory manager during the week.

“They really want to do it, but they just need that encouragement. Nippers is about developing the lifesavers of tomorrow and you’ve got to provide the environment for the competitive kids to excel. The confidence group is for those kids that are wavering. For me, it’s not about the competition; it’s about getting down here and having fun.”  

A few months later, the progress of these kids is clearly remarkable. I watch as Annalise runs up from the water, dripping wet and excited. She’s just swum past the breakers to the buoy, and back again. “I’m not scared anymore of what’s down below,” she says. “Sharks and sea monsters and things. I concentrate on doing 20 strokes then five strokes of breaststroke to get my breath back. It helps keep my mind off it.”

Even the surf club’s fastest surf swimmer worries about what’s “down below”. “I still get scared,” says Ben Thornton, 14, Minnows junior captain and a NSW State swimming representative. “It’s heaps dark down there and I’m scared of sharks. I figure the quicker I go out and get back in, the less chance they have of getting me.” 

Confidence building 

It’s mid-March and almost the end of the season. The last day on the beach sees awards given out to the best Nippers. Other kids celebrate their own achievements more quietly. Sanishka is out of his wetsuit, getting past the waves and out around the buoy. Hugo is diving with full force under the waves. Lauren has to be dragged out of the water when it’s time to go.

“At the beginning of the season, she used to cry and make any excuse: the water was too cold, the waves were too big, her tummy hurt – anything to get out of it,” says her mother Eliza Leung. “Now she’s finding she can get under the waves and get out a bit further and she hasn’t been complaining.”

I watch as the two Jones girls paddle for a wave that has caught them unawares. They catch it straight in to the shore, their smiling faces bobbing through the foam. Annalise plops on the sand, panting. Nicola is close behind her. Neither sister will need confidence class next year. “Come on,” Nicola shrieks. “Let’s go back in!”