The mechanics of a surf club

Celeste Moffatt in her perfect-view office. Photo: Nikki South.

He introduces himself as Mr Sausage – a name well-earned and well respected.

“I barbecue sausages for 300 kids in just a couple of hours,” Mr Sausage says proudly. “I love it. The kids are just wonderful.”

Three hundred kids are on Papamoa Beach getting started on what for many, will be a lifelong adventure with surf lifesaving. The Junior Surf Nippers’ programme sees kids aged between five and 14 having fun, getting exercise and learning to be safe on the beach. 

Sunday morning is their time at the Papamoa Surf Lifesaving Club. And when their morning’s done, Mr Sausage feeds them. “They’re ravenous,” he says.

Mr Sausage is Paul Wiseman. He and the nippers are at either extremes of the surf lifesaving spectrum. He’s probably deep into his 70s, and in between the nippers and Paul there’s close to 900 other members of the Papamoa Surf Life Saving Club.

“They’re keeping our beach safe and enjoyable” says Celeste Moffatt – a quote more or less straight from the club’s mission and vision statements – to prevent drowning and injury on Papamoa Beach.

To deliver excellence in lifeguarding, surf sports and leadership programmes through strong membership and community engagement.

“That’s our core business, everything leads to lifeguarding.” Celeste is the club’s administration and funding manager.

She preaches the surf lifesaving ethos like a religious convert. “In it for life,” she says. And her office is a little corner of heaven – it’s in the clubhouse, just above the high waterline, nestled in the dunes.

Day-to-day, this office is the beating heart of the club – people queue for Celeste’s time. And they talk all things club and surf lifesaving against a backdrop of waves drizzled with diamonds, white sands stretching out of sight, the distinctive smell of spindrift and people at play.

It’s an office ideal for not getting a thing done today.

But Celeste wants to talk serious surf lifesaving stuff, like pathways.

“It’s important.” She draws on an analogy. “Give a five-year-old a tennis racquet and a ball and, at age 30, they still only have the racquet and ball. Nothing’s changed.”

But they might also have made squillions by winning Wimbledon. “If you are very, very lucky, but probably not. Conversely, at a surf club you come in at five and learn skills on the beach, there’s wading through the waves, there’s boogey boarding, boogey boards turn into foam boards, foam boards turn into fibre glass boards and fiberglass boards turn into skis.”

Her point is that things, and people, at a surf lifesaving club are forever evolving - doing new things, meeting new challenges and all the time making beaches a safer and more enjoyable place to be.

“You may be an elite athlete thinking you’ve done this for five years and you’ve done enough – so we would suggest you do your IRB module.

“Or I quite like the idea of getting in one of those canoes out there – canoe racing, surf craft racing. At any time there is something new and challenging for everyone.” Most other clubs, whether its football or rugby or whatever, have just a single focus.

So it’s about pathways – even though those pathways all relate to the core business of saving lives and keeping beaches safe.

And the club’s performing its core business. According to the annual reports, its lifeguards provided 3544 hours of service keeping the beach border of the country’s fastest growing suburb safe last summer. Six people were pulled from life threatening situations in the surf and another 1100 potentially dangerous situations were defused.

Celeste Moffat is her own best advertisement. She’s also tripping happily down one of surf lifesaving’s pathways with her entire family. They call themselves “surf virgins”, because when they arrived at Papamoa Beach 20 years ago, they had absolutely no surf experience. “We decided, like a lot of families, that our kids were going to learn some surf skills.”

Liam, 17 and Ariana 20 are now both qualified lifeguards. “I am very proud.” And of course, Mum’s in the office and husband Craig’s working on his level one surf official’s course. That’s after a year serving on club committees. It’s a bit like the old church philosophy – “give me a child ‘til they’re seven and we will have them for life.” Surf lifesaving simply says “in it for life” and it provides compelling opportunities for you to want to stay. Some lifeguards are third generation members.

“Once we have got you, we want to keep you, and we give them a great place to be,” says Celeste. “We want to engage you, we want to create opportunities to upskill you, and for the young ones it’s about pathways, whereby these skills and interests can translate into careers and a lifelong interest.”

Like the first aid module – a component of the lifeguard pathway which is about safety on the beach as opposed to the surf sports pathway.

“First aid is great, and ties into NCEA. It’s amazing how many surf lifesavers go on to work in the health industry. Like “Dumpy” Daniel Edwards. He’s going to be a nurse.

“I have only got another six or so weeks in the classroom and then I will be out in a doctor’s consulting rooms, a hospital, an emergency room or a rest home. Surf lifesaving set me on my career path.”

And when there’s a crisis, it doesn’t have to be on the beach for some “Pap Power” to be applied and for Papamoa lifeguards to react. Early last year, when floodwaters devastated Edgecombe, the surf lifesavers were in the thick of the rescue operation. Quietly, efficiently, effectively. They work closely with the police and coastguard.

“We all believe in the core values – the commitment to provide a good service and keep the community safe. And along the way we have enormous fun. It’s an amazing culture. We nurture each other and respect each other.”

The Papamoa Surf Lifesaving Club pavilion was designed for a club of 80, which has grown to a club of 900. It’s no longer meeting the needs. Celeste gestures to some architects concepts pinned to the wall. But that’s another story.

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