Rain or shine, the surf's still up at Piha beach video

JASON DORDAY/Stuff.co.nz

Oli Stewart is a surf lifesaver at Piha in Auckland.

Summer in New Zealand – it's all about the bubbling road tar and iceblocks, the sunburnt shoulders and kids leaping off wharves, eh.

Except when it isn't. Like when Stuff headed to Piha last week. The plan was to report on the crowds frolicking in the surf on Auckland's wild west, and burning their feet on the hot black sands. There might, perhaps, be a dramatic rescue by the telegenic Piha lifesavers.

But, as is not entirely unusual for the post-Christmas week, the cloud closed in, the wind picked up and the drizzle fell. The crowds stayed home, but really, said Jason Friend at The Piha Store, the place still had plenty to offer.

Oli Stewart and Lauren Williams (background) are surf lifesavers at Piha in Auckland.

Oli Stewart and Lauren Williams (background) are surf lifesavers at Piha in Auckland.

When it's raining, he pointed out, "you don't get sunburnt". And the bush-walks are great with or without drizzle.

Friend was out the back making brownies and prepping the slow-cooked pork. Sure, custom is brisker when the sun is out, but beachwalkers were still queueing for coffees and pies. Iceblocks? Not so much.

At the campground across the road, Terry Lythe-Brown was beneath a nearly-waterproof gazebo, playing Rummikub with his son, godson and niece. Later, they might move on to 500 or "Up and Down the River". The rain was setting in, said Lythe-Brown, but he wasn't bothered. They'd already had a beach walk. The barbecue would work under the gazebo. No worries.

Jason Friend at the Piha Store: pies and coffee are in demand, rain or shine.

Jason Friend at the Piha Store: pies and coffee are in demand, rain or shine.

At Piha Surf, owner Mike Jolly can survey the surf without leaving his office. Rain never discourages a surfer – "you're going to get wet anyway" – but the onshore wind was making the sea jumbly and horrible, so he wouldn't be surfing today.

Jolly's 66, and has been in Piha since the early 1970s. He loves surfing for the usual reasons: "It can be cold and brutal in the middle of winter or it can lovely and sunny and warm. It's about being in the elements."

Piha is the "killer beach in New Zealand in terms of drownings," said Jolly. "I think we may be up to 59."

Rainy day Rummikub at Piha campground (l-r): Ella Lythe, Terry Lythe-Brown, Declan Crocker and Ethan Lythe-Brown.

Rainy day Rummikub at Piha campground (l-r): Ella Lythe, Terry Lythe-Brown, Declan Crocker and Ethan Lythe-Brown.

Surfers seldom get into trouble. They might get cut by a fin if they're run over when 80 people are out on the same break, but drownings usually involve "people who do stupid things, people who don't swim between the flags."

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It's quiet at the Piha Surf LIfe Saving Club. Five young guards up in the operations room with their binoculars and radios; one more down on the beach with the dozen-odd swimmers and boogie-boarders. Today's stats: zero rescues, zero first aid incidents. But when good weather and public holidays collide, said Oli Stewart, the place goes nuts.

Stewart, a recent university graduate, has lifeguarded the northern region for six summers, and the biggest day he ever saw was here at Piha, on a recent New Year's Day.

Mike Jolly at Piha Surf: "this is the killer beach in terms of drownings".

Mike Jolly at Piha Surf: "this is the killer beach in terms of drownings".

"It was a really sunny day and everyone came to the beach, plus they were really dangerous conditions. We were just pulling people out of the water all day. For the three hours around low tide we had jetskis and boats working the whole time."

In the 106 years since Surf Life Saving New Zealand was founded, not a single swimmer has drowned while staying between the flags.

Stewart doesn't think of his rescuees as stupid or irresponsible; just in need of education. Many of those who get into trouble are foreigners who aren't used to the unpredictability of the water here.

"We have some of the most dangerous coast in the world, and it's some of the most accessible in the world. It's a challenge to keep everyone safe."

■ Choose a patrolled beach and swim between the flags (www.findabeach.co.nz).
■ Always keep a very close eye on children in or near the water. Don't overestimate you or your children's ability to cope in the conditions. Preferably be in the water next to them at all times on a surf beach.
■ Get a friend to swim with you - never swim or surf alone.
■ Watch out for that rip. Rips are calm, deep patches of water close to shore that can sometimes have waves breaking to the side. Rippled, discoloured or foamy water with debris can also mean there is a rip present.
■ Be smart around rocks: whether fishing or exploring at the beach, rocky outcrops can be very dangerous in large surf. When fishing, always wear a lifejacket. Never stand on a rock outcrop that is already wet (a sure sign waves will be washing over it) and always face the ocean; never turn your back on the sea.
■ If in doubt, stay out!
■ If you spot someone in trouble at an unpatrolled beach, ensure your own safety and dial 111 and ask for police.
Source: www.surflifesaving.org.nz

 - Sunday Star Times

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