Multicultural sea change for icon of beach culture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2007, 12:00am

Australian surf livesaving clubs recruit Asians and Muslims

They have been the embodiment of Australian beach culture for a century, as quintessential an icon as the bushranger and the jackaroo.

But surf lifesavers, who have rescued more than half a million people from the sea in the past 100 years, are undergoing a dramatic change of image.

Surf lifesaving clubs are being hauled into the 21st century in a bid to make them more representative of the country's multicultural mix and no longer just the preserve of strapping, bronzed, blue-eyed action men.

The overhaul coincides with the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the first surf club, at Sydney's famous Bondi Beach, as well as the Year of the Lifesaver.

With 115,000 unpaid lifesavers patrolling Australia's beaches and more than 300 clubs, Surf Life Saving Australia is the nation's largest volunteer movement.

But for a long time, it was deeply conservative - before 1980, women were not allowed to join.

Its stern, militaristic tradition, developed by servicemen returning from the world wars, intimidated many newer immigrants.

Stephen Leong, 36, whose parents emigrated to Australia from Hong Kong 60 years ago, said he was initially nervous about approaching his local lifesaving club in the beachside suburb of Manly.

Being a surfer of Asian heritage had already set him apart from what he thought was a bastion of white, Anglo-Saxon culture.

'I was initially very conscious of that but then I flicked through a training manual published by Surf Life Saving Australia and there were Asian faces in it. That was very encouraging,' he said yesterday.

He joined North Steyne lifesaving club a year ago and performed his first rescue on Saturday, pulling a man and his two young daughters from rough surf.

'From the day I walked through the door, they welcomed me with open arms,' said Mr Leong, a snowboard instructor and illustrator. 'Since then I've found that one of the beach patrol captains is called Chang and a lot of the Nippers [children involved in lifesaving training] are of Asian descent.'

A concerted effort has also been launched to recruit Australians of Middle Eastern background, funded by a A$600,000 (HK$3.64 million) grant from the federal government.

It is a direct response to the Cronulla riots of December 2005, when gangs of white and Middle Eastern youths clashed, throwing rocks and bottles, smashing car windows and screaming racist abuse at each other around one of Sydney's most popular beaches.

Mecca Laalaa is one of 14 young Muslims of Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian heritage who hope to become fully qualified lifesavers when they take their exams this week.

For the past two months she has taken part in a gruelling training regime which has included first aid, radio communication, rescue drills and fitness tests.

But her religious beliefs forbade her from wearing the Baywatch-style bikinis of her white Australian counterparts. So a local designer of Lebanese background came up with a novel idea - the 'burqini' - a full-length lycra suit which is loose enough to preserve Muslim women's modesty but light enough to enable them to swim and rescue flailing bathers from treacherous rips and undertows.

It even comes with a built-in hijab (headscarf) and will be made in the distinctive red and yellow of the surf lifesaving movement.

'Normally I'd wear cotton trousers and a top but they get very heavy in the water. This meets our cultural requirements,' the 20-year-old student said as she patrolled the white sands of Cronulla.

The group's trainer, Tony Coffey, 49, said the burqini made swimming more difficult compared with being dressed in a bikini or swimsuit. 'It's the biggest hurdle they face. But we can't do anything about it, it's part of the deal. They just need more intensive training.'

The new recruits will be expected to volunteer as lifesavers one weekend out of every four, rescuing swimmers and dealing with jellyfish stings, surfing injuries and lost children.

'We're breaking down social barriers,' said Malaak Mourad, an 18-year-old surf lifesaving student of Lebanese background. 'Most of the lifesavers are Anglo-Saxon. We've been getting a lot of attention but I think it's admiration more than anything negative.'