Club 'competing with a purpose'
It has been a matter of luck that Tahunanui Beach has been relatively free of dramas involving rescues, but Nelson Surf Life Saving Club captain Ed Steenbergen reckons the area is not as benign as it appears.
The Nelson-based Australian, who cut his teeth in surf life saving on the wild and treacherous beaches of the Victorian coastline, said the accessibility of Tahunanui Beach to anyone who wants to venture into its waters made it potentially dangerous.
The band of volunteer surf life savers who patrol it on Sundays over the summer months are funded only on Sunday afternoons between December and March, but there were hopes that could be extended, Mr Steenbergen said.
"I've not seen anything serious at Tahunanui, but we've been called out to rescue kitesurfers, kayakers, boats that have slipped anchor and paddleboarders which are becoming an increasing hazard," Mr Steenbergen said.
He said in Australia several factors were used to determine how beaches were classified in terms of the danger they presented to swimmers; water and how it interacted with the land being primary considerations. Accessibility was also a factor.
"For example, Piha [west of Auckland] would be considered low-risk because it was less accessible - people have to get into a car and drive there.
"Tahunanui by comparison is very accessible. A state highway is right beside it, and people can leap straight into the water from the road or they can drive to the car park. Anyone can walk right up to it and jump in."
Mr Steenbergen said Tahunanui Beach was subject to currents and Blind Channel was a rip tide.
"When the [Waimea] Estuary is draining out, it goes very fast and if you don't know what to do you could be out in Tasman Bay very quickly.
"I'm surprised there's not more trouble there," he said.
A Stoke family discovered in December just how treacherous the channel was when Aidan Clark, 11, got stuck in the current and his father Anthony plunged in to assist his son but made little headway. A stranger joined in and was a strong-enough swimmer to pull the boy clear, freeing Mr Clark to drag himself back to shore.
The Nelson Surf Life Saving Club is currently made up of 52 "Nippers" aged under 14, and 45 lifeguards. In the 2011-12 financial year it received $6000 from Surf Life Saving New Zealand, which was topped up by grants from KiwiSport and Network Tasman, plus annual membership fees. A senior member pays an annual subscription of $80 and Nippers pay $50 annual fees.
An extra funding stream comes from the Nelson triathlon club's sea swimming series which the club supports with its patrol boats.
The surf life saving club has been a feature in Nelson since the 1930s, but the club as it is now has been in existence since 1989.
It is based in the Sealord Marine Rescue Centre on Wakefield Quay from where it operates a 24-hour, 7 day a week, search and rescue squad for fast response to emergencies at sea in inshore areas, and then provides patrols at Tahunanui Beach over the summer holiday period.
Mr Steenbergen said a challenge for the club was maintaining numbers so it could keep up the patrols.
"We have good numbers coming through being trained each year, but we also lose numbers each year."
He said being a surf life saver was a community service, but it also offered a competitive element. Members were able to compete in various competitions up to international level, but it was "competing with a purpose" to develop life-guarding skills.
Training programmes included sea swims, surf ski paddling and Nippers education while courses offered included first aid, radio use, and IRB crew and driver instruction. To become a surf life saver, a requirement is being able to swim 400 metres in nine minutes.
Mr Steenbergen, a construction project manager, has been with the Nelson club for five years, and is also involved in other community based projects.
"I've been passionate about surf life saving since I was 16."
His chief aim with the club is to have a permanent base created from a building at the beach. The club has been prodding the Nelson City Council for a couple of years, but there are complications surrounding the area coming under the jurisdiction of the reserve management plan.
"A base at the beach would be ideal and if it's designed well, and included a cafe, it could be self-sustaining so that no ongoing council funding would be needed."
For further details on the Nelson Surf Life Saving Club visit nelsonslsc.org.nz/index
The Nelson Mail