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A Tribute to the Bondi Lifeguards

Starting off in the best way possible, let’s pay homage to the superhuman lifeguards at Bondi Beach (and at every swimming hole). To sum it up perfectly – “I have never seen and I never expect to see again, such magnificent work as was done by those lifesavers.”

Anyone that has grown up around the beach knows that it’s not always fun and games when it comes to the ocean. Around Bondi, it can be as flat as a tack one day with barely a ripple, then a heaving wrath of water the next with whitewashing monsters beating down on parts of the Coastal Walk and destroying anything in their path (including a few sculptures if we get a swell during Sculptures by the Sea).

Yep, it can be a sketchy place if you’re not careful. From getting toasted on the sand to getting into a sticky situation with a rip that’s dragging you out to sea, there are plenty of ways to get hurt at the beach … never mind your fear of sharks, the raw power of the ocean can be life threatening all by itself. We’re not trying to freak you out but just trying to keep people aware and prepared. Often the most beautiful of things are the most dangerous.

Thanks to one group of people that look out for us, any toddler, codger or clueless tourist can enjoy the magic of the beach without much of a worry at all. And the lifeguards that spend their weekend keeping a watchful eye over the thousands that descend on the sand have been doing so in Bondi for over a century.

The Bondi Surf Bather’s Life Saving Club was established just six years after Australia became a nation and has been an integral part of Bondi’s evolution into one of the most famous beaches in the world.

This weekend, Australia’s oldest surf club pays tribute to its lifeguards as it remembers one of the most harrowing events in Bondi’s history.

On Sunday 6th February 1938, Bondi witnessed the largest mass rescue in the country’s history. It was a scorching hot Sunday with the mercury notching into the 40s and, much like you’d expect to see it today, the beach was packed.

The surfers were getting amongst the big sets that were rolling through and, despite the dangerous conditions, the red and yellow flags were up. Whilst the sandbanks were offering a few tasty tubes for the board riders, the tide had revealed an unusually large bank that lured the beach goers into waist-deep water an uncomfortable distance from shore.

With three freak waves in quick succession, around 300 swimmers were knocked off their feet and swept into a deep channel heading out to sea. Whilst the swimmers were at the mercy of Mother Nature, Bondi’s heroic lifesavers leaped into action. Manning the wheels, grabbing rubber surf floats, surf boards and skis or using just their strength and skill, the lifeguards swam into the turmoil to help.

In the end around 250 bathers required assistance; 150 were rescued unharmed; 60 needed first aid; 35 were pulled from the water unconscious and resuscitated on the beach and 5 people lost their lives.

To mark the 80th Anniversary of the event, Bondi Surf Club is holding a re-enactment of the Black Sunday rescue at 4pm on the beach. It will involve the rescue and resuscitation techniques of the day and some of today’s innovations with running commentary of the event. You can check it out from the Promenade or get amongst the action right on the beach. Surf and swimming safety knowledge is so important, especially in Australia where we are surrounded by unpredictable but beautiful water.

words by james phillips

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