Sink or Swim?

I have been reading the recent reports in the press that Surf Lifesaving Queensland (SLSQ) is under threat of litigation over alleged failures in their duty of care. Surf Lifesavers are a remarkable Australian phenomenon, and their red and yellow cap is as iconic as Vegemite. A volunteer organisation that was founded over 100 years ago, they lay claim to rescuing in excess of 125,000 swimmers since 1930 in Queensland alone.

Further, each year over 11,000 nippers learn about the sea and survival in the Queensland surf. If you have been at the beach on any given Sunday morning you will realise what a fantastic sight it is to see all those kids dashing around and off their smartphones. This training has undoubtedly indirectly saved countless more lives.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 85% of us live less than 50km from some part of Australia’s 35,877km of coastline. Let’s face it, the surf is a dangerous place, where things can go pear-shaped in the blink of an eye. Yet a day at the beach is a common peril that most Australians relish. As someone who has ridden a surfboard most of my life, I have immense respect for the power of the sea.

The problems for surf lifesaving were escalated in 2014 during the coronial inquest into the tragic death of a 14 year old boy during a surf contest. Uncovering governance tensions and duty-of-care concerns, the inquest even considered the introduction of buoyancy vests. Recently, SLSQ are struggling to hold back a tide of legal claims covering a range of incidents. No-win/No-fee lawyers are being blamed, but we need to face up to the fact that the lawyers are responding to a community that expects to be kept safe in even the most extreme environment. I posed some thoughts about the possible consequences in a previous article entitled ‘Blame Culture = Lame Culture?

There are swings and roundabouts here, as the risk of litigation undoubtedly makes organisations acutely aware of their obligations towards personal safety and forces them to strive for continual improvement. Nonetheless, as someone who loves the outdoors, I admire the New Zealand no-fault approach towards personal injury that promotes their unique culture of active recreation and adventure pursuits. For me, life is a constant debate over risk and reward.

In reading the recent press about this sad state-of-affairs, I was reminded of an experience I had whilst on a surfing trip to the Caroline Islands, tiny pinpricks of land in the North Pacific Ocean midway between Guam and Hawaii. One of the islands is home to the legendary and remote P-Pass right-hander, one of the world’s best breaks. One afternoon, when the wind was all wrong, we took a trip to the ancient ruins of an island king. Separated by the island by a narrow channel of impossibly clear calm water, it was spectacular. On arrival, we came across a group of beautifully happy kids swimming in the shoulder deep water. The oldest girl looked to be around fourteen and she was clearly babysitting her 3 younger brothers, the youngest being a toddler aged between 1 and 2.

Anyhow, as we joined them for a swim in this magnificent setting, I noticed that the youngest was having a ball making his way around the pool precariously clinging to a bobbing coconut. Every so often, he would lose his grip and flounder, at which time his ever-watchful sister would calmly make her way over and pull her wildly grinning brother back onto the coconut. I was horrified to see this unfolding, but I soon realised that everything was going to plan. Living on a low waterlogged island, without the protection of pool fences, being able to swim is a key survival skill. Certainly, risky business by our standards, but with the help of his watchful teacher, I figured that this toddler would soon emulate his elder siblings and become a fine swimmer.

It would be tragic if the outcome of the current swathe of personal injury claims against SLSQ resulted in a reduction of their wonderful service. Worse still if their insurers insisted on taking a pragmatic position to somehow limit their involvement in surf safety – circumstances such as bathing outside of flagged areas where they make countless rescues yet occasionally get sued for doing so. Perhaps worst of all would be that fear of litigation stops parents from engaging their kids in the Nippers movement, thereby forgoing the opportunity to learn how to cope in our own coastal communities and stay fit in the process.

About Peter Robertson

Born and bred in Eumundi and Nambour, in strong company indeed. After studying Maths and Physics at uni in Brisbane, I pursued a business career that I sometimes worry is best described as ‘Jack of all trades – master of none’. Having safely made it to my mid 50’s, I am still yet to have a real job – but I expect to grow up someday. My love of sport has never waned and I regularly play tennis, golf and surf. Other pursuits include fly fishing and trekking. I have been serving on a few private and NFP boards in sports and other areas to keep me out of mischief.

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