Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Lifesaving with Crocodiles

Guest Blogger: James Marsh- Head Coach, Cairns Surf Lifesaving Club

A few years ago, I moved myself and family from Perranporth in Cornwall to Cairns in tropical North Queensland, Australia. After 25 plus years as an avid lifesaver on the rugged Cornish Atlantic Coast and many years of competing around the world, I figured I'd seen all that lifesaving had to offer. Convinced that there was going to be no lifesaving where we were going, I sold my board, donated ski and paddles to the Perranporth club, and prepared to hang up the racing Speedos.

We moved into a company apartment on the southern side of the city away from the beaches. Free time was spent exploring rainforest or snorkeling on the reef, and lifesaving was forgotten for a few months. Then a colleague mentioned that there were two surf clubs up north of the city. I ended up checking out the Cairns SLSC based at Palm Cove one Saturday afternoon.

I found one friendly chap who told me to come along 6.45am Sunday morning for a ski paddle. So Sunday morning I brushed the cobwebs off my best pair of Perranporth Speedos and headed down the beach.

I thought I would try to impress them and drop a name: “I used to paddle with Simon Lawrence the hero of the surf
Simon who?”
You must know him - he paddled for GB in Hawaii, and made saffron buns with David Hasselhoff”.
“Sorry mate, but who the **** is David Hasselhoff?”

I knew I was onto a loser, and decided not to throw Mark Ressel or Glen Eldridge into the conversation, and just asked for a ski and paddle that I could borrow. After convincing them that I was capable of staying on a single, I picked out an old Burton that looked a bit like a Gaisford.

“What do you paddle in Pommie Land then?”
“I used to paddle Gaisfords”
“What the **** is a Gaisford?”
“You must have heard of Ghastly Gaisford, pioneer of ski building in the Northern Hemisphere and half of the Gaisford/Minnow Green legendary double act?”

More blank looks - it was time to hit the water. I hadn’t paddled for a long time, but made a superhuman effort to impress them with some Pommie ski paddling. The Sunday circuit is about 10km out around two islands just off the coast. Having heard numerous scare stories about sharks, crocs, stingers and sea snakes I was somewhat twitchy and did my Speedos up extra tight.

On the way out I discovered that the stingers were not due back until Christmas, sea snakes were harmless and the Crocs were not a problem in the sea except for occasionally in Jan-Feb time. About 400m offshore we paddled past the shark nets, which was bit of a giveaway. Apparently there are more sharks caught here than anywhere on the East coast of Australia. However, I was quickly told that the last recorded attack was about 50 years ago so there was "no worries mate".

That first paddle was fascinating as we passed over hundreds on meters of reef interspersed with sandy gulleys. A couple of turtles drifted by, dolphins circled and a sea snake sidled by. The islands were nothing like the weather beaten rocks of Cornwall and trees covered them from the water’s edge to the very top. Cockatoos and Rainbow Lorikeets flew from tree to tree whilst Sea Eagles circled above. I was hooked.

We stopped for a break on a small shady beach at the back of one of the islands and discussed my “initiation” as a new paddler. I didn’t like the sound of that, but thought I couldn’t give Pommie lifesavers a bad name. We paddled further around the island until a small opening to a cave could be seen in deep water. The initiation was to swim into the cave which involved going underwater into the air pocket inside and picking up some coral from the very back.

Apparently, I was “advised”, the trick was to avoid the 500lb Grouper that lived inside from grabbing your leg. Not believing a word about the Grouper, but being convinced I would come out to find them all gone along with my ski, I jumped off to swim to the cave. If you’ve ever swum from sunshine into a pitch black cave you’ll know how I felt.

Having passed the initiation I was a fully fledged member - and the only Pommie in the club. Five months later I was the local Masters Iron man champion and British lifesavers were on the map.

Patrols run from March until December, which makes it a very long season. There is no such thing as a rip current though, and not a lot to do until the stinger nets go in during November. They usually stay in until May/June during which time all bathers should stay inside the net to avoid the Box jellyfish, which can be deadly. It is around Christmas that the odd Crocodile strays out into the ocean looking for mates, and new territory. Sharks are nothing compared to a big croc, which will attack anything and everything that gets close enough. If one of them shows up the nets are closed for 2 weeks and if you go into the water, you keep moving.

Otherwise the main patrol duty during stinger season is to don a body hugging Lycra body suit and drag a 6’ wide net around the bathing area to make sure no stingers have got in. Unfortunately there are also almost microscopic jellyfish called Irikandji that go straight through the net. They are not deadly, but can put you in hospital for a couple of days. The best way to avoid them is watch out for Japanese tourists collapsing, and then get out sharpish. It always pays to wear tight sluggos in stinger season for obvious reasons!


Spike said...

This man is a legend...gives The Borg a run for his money anytime

saltydogdavis said...

There is an Aussie up here who gives this pommie legend a run for his money

Beach Bum said...

saltydog - get this Aussie to pen a piece for me to balance up the score then - I'm lookin for another guest blogger. BTW you call tell Jimbo that Simon's finally getting a PC sorted...