Club History

Memories of former members Nick Hodgson and Don Grooby, recorded Saturday, April 25, 2009. Plus interview with Noel Houston. 2400 words transcribed.

It's been an impressive journey for the Waimarama Surf Lifesaving Club. From modest beginnings that were washed away by tides of storm and war, the club's  Phoenix-like revival since 1951 has seen it rise and grow to become a landmark, a beacon of safety and the heart of Waimarama beach life.It's a story of  hard work, sweat, determination by so many volunteers  dedicated to the altruism of surf lifesaving .
A fledgling lifesaving club was established at Waimarama before the Second World War, but it fell into recess as the country's attention was diverted to lives being lost en masse overseas. Its resuscitation was overlooked during the bustle of  rebuilding during the immediate post-war years, and it was not until late February 1951 that Harry Poppelwell, president of the Heretaunga Swimming Club and the inspirational head of Greater Hastings, called a public meeting. He was worried by the absence of a lifesaving club at Waimarama, and he wanted to know whether there was enough public support to revive it.

Foundation member Nick Hodgson remembers it well. "The club was not formed as a breakaway from anything. Harry Poppelwell called a public meeting, and a number of the members of the Heretaunga Swimming Club went to it," he says. "Harry outlined what he saw as the need for club. There had been a drowning at the southern end sometime between 1948-51. He sent everybody away to think about it for a month.
"At the second meeting in late March there was a good turnout. He nominated me as secretary-treasurer. I was only 20 years old," says Nick, who was already very familiar with Waimarama Beach.

"I had been there camping with friends. Some of them played tennis, but I never did. I used to go and lie on the beach." Nick remained a member of the club until 1953, when the bank he worked for transferred him out of Hastings. Mr Poppelwell quickly signed up veteran lifesaver Jim Durand, who had an impressive record of lifesaving experience in Dunedin, to become Waimarama's coach.

As Margaret Frater remembers:  "Jim Durand was ex-Navy. He set the tone with discipline but was one of the guys. The discipline was there. He was the mainstay for so many years. He held it all together for so long".

"We had four seniors and four juniors. Jim trained us and encouraged us to get ourselves prepared to enter the national lifesaving championships. Until we did that we didn't know what we had gotten into," says Nick. "In 1952 we went to Oakura, New Plymouth. Eight of us went across. We were the first eight. Jimmy was the coach, with Don Grooby, Colin Palmer, Les Rogers and myself. The juniors were Bob Frater, Jimmy Stevens, Doug Crawford and Graham Grooby, (Don's brother).

"The competitions have always been a big part of it. That's what you train for, to get your skills as best you could, to use out there," says Nick.
In 1953, the fledgling club entered its first national champs, in Gisborne.

Since then, it has produced many notable successes at local and national carnivals,  including New Zealand representatives Bert Cotterill and Neil  Penwarden in its ranks,  and local Hawke's Bay representatives A. Thompson, J. Martin, P. Hannah, D. Poppelwell, P. Turner, D. Padfield, B. Clarke, Q. Tod, B. Coleman, M. Barry, G. Martin and B. Keehan within its ranks.

Work  began a clubhouse at Waimarama during the winter of 1951. It was a huge challenge, as equipment was limited, and the workers slept under canvas.

Unfortunately, the first foundations were laid right on the beachfront, and  were destroyed  by a severe storm and tidal wave.
The building team, supervised by Les Rogers, started all over again, this time setting the foundations 50 metres back from the beach, behind a large stopbank.  The building itself was constructed in three sections  in CA Odlins yard in Hastings, then  transported  out to Waimarama on log trucks. Timber jacks helped slide the sections off the trucks on to high foundations that had been greased to assist the task.
"It was all built with voluntary labour and donated materials and fundraising with sheep and cattle and raffles," Nick remembers.

Don Grooby was a Hawke's Bay champ in springboard diving for several years with the Heretaunga Swimming Club, which was based at the Madison Baths in Eastbourne Street. Don, an apprentice mechanic, offered a very practical contribution to the new surf lifesaving club.
"In the early days, transport was a problem so my father lent us a 1933 Buick. It was a tourer that Dad cut down and turned into a truck.
Every Saturday and Sunday I transported members of the club. We used it for two or three years. There would be 11-12 club members on the back, all perched along the sides. By this  time we had the clubhouse and we could sleep overnight.

"One day the truck failed to take a bend on the turnoff to Ocean Beach and left the road. It rolled over everyone and came to rest in a creek, but no one was hurt. The only mishap was that Doug Crawford lost the heel off his shoe." Another truck arrived on the scene and picked them all up.
"We left the truck in the creek," Don said. After it was pulled out of the creek, Don's father made him repair the minor damage it had suffered.

Don and Nick both have strong memories of some of some of the rescues during the club's early days at Waimarama. Don can remember one particularly dramatic event at New year in 1952.  "We had the guys from Maranui. We were sponsoring a club from Wellington for the first carnival, and we had a lot of activity on the beach. "A young fella on the beach was punchdrunk. The tide was coming in, and there were holes on the beach. We ran out and grabbed him and told him not to go in there when it was like this. But he did it again when the tide was going out. It was about 5pm, the day was nearly finishing and I was getting changed out of my togs. As I was coming back to the clubhouse he tackled me and accused us of thinking we owned the beach."

Nick says he will never forget rescuing a child on a floating mattress heading out to sea. "His mother gave us a real earful. People are not always grateful for being rescued. Sometimes they just clear out without saying 'thank you'. They might be embarrassed." Stand-out for him was a textbook rescue by a young trainee. "We were at Maranui once. I called out on the beach. One of the juniors had been told to put away the gear. He was doing that. His own surf ski was at the water's edge. Someone got into trouble, so the junior went out, got this guy, picked him up and brought him back in. He never got water above his ankles. "It was the most professional thing I've ever seen." The impressive inventory of rescue equipment packed into the Waimarama clubhouse  these days is a far cry from the sparse, makeshift era that Nick and Don knew.

Don made two of the club's earlier surf reels, with a line of quarter-inch cotton featuring patented red and blue fleck. He had the brass fittings chrome-plated. He also made two wooden skis, and gave one to his brother-in-law.

The lifeguards themselves had no buoyancy aids.  Instead, they relied on physical strength and teamwork of military precision and discipline.
That disciplne underpinned not just the competitive and practical aspects of the club, but its social side too. "The day King George died they put on an impromptu march-past at Oakura, at a competition," says Nick. "The military precision was taught to us. We had set march pieces. It was very disciplined. That was the era we lived in. The routines were very military. The reel man had to feed the line out. He had to stand with his elbow square while holding the line, even when he was in the water. You had to do rescuscitation for two minutes, counting the seconds.

The counting, rhythm, timing, it was drilled into you so you would operate even in a panic rescue.
"There was a special drill for when somebody attacked you. You have to spin them around. It was a drill for your own survival. It's not difficult if it's done quickly," he says.

Members recall the  clubhouse facilities for the first two years as primitive. It took some time before it could be lined, and bunks and lockers installed. For the first five years the club maintained patrols and made several dramatic rescues on the beach. Its efforts were noticed and appreciated.

During the summer of 1956-57, an extra room was added to accommodate 18 bunks. At about the same time Don Grooby's father built a small shop at the opposite end, from which ice-creams and soft drinks could sold, to raise funds. A small room was also built to provide washing and cooking facilities for the public. 

It was during that season the club was asked to join the Gisborne-Poverty Bay Association, but it declined and set about making the first steps to form the Hawke's Bay Regional Committee, which later became the Hawke's Bay Surf Life Saving Association.

In 1957 the club bought its first surf canoe from the St. Clair Club in Dunedin for £26/5/9. It  was one of the old wooden form, canvas cover types. It  served until 1965, when it was replaced by a fibreglass model.

In the 1957-58 season the club transferred from the Heretaunga pool to the Parkvale Baths, obtained with the assistance of Bert Cotterill. 
About the same time, a Mr Sutherland donated an iron gable roof to the Waimarama clubhouse, to replace its flat one. 

In the 1958-59 season, changing rooms, showers and toilet facilities were added to the northern end of the clubhouse, using funds raised by club boys chopping and selling fire wood.  The club was thriving, and morale was high.

In 1959 a reunion was organised by Bob Frater. This took the form of a social evening at the Rifle Club rooms. Doug Crawford who had been secretary-treasurer since 1958, was  chiefly running the affairs of the club, instigating much of the building progress and organising fundraising.

Foundation member Gordon Greig  became gear steward in 1957 and held the position until he travelled overseas in the early 60's. 

The club hit a rocky patch in 1960-61, when membership began a fall into single figures as older members got married and drifted away.
 During these seasons it became difficult to maintain patrols on the beach and it was only because a willing few put in tremendous effort that the club managed to fulfil its duties.

In 1960-61 the ever-present problem of transport to and from the beach was eased by the use of a truck with a canvas hood belonging to Mr Boag. It was used every Sunday for two seasons.  Also in 1960 a new gear shed was built adjacent to the clubhouse. It is now used for housing of equipment. Another setback came in 1962, when the club's  canoe was severely damaged by vandals when it was left outside  one night. It was found the next morning with knife cuts right down the centre of the hull.  Repairs were made, but the canoe was never put to sea again as a rescue craft. Just before Christmas 1963, a new fibreglass canoe arrived. It was launched on January 1, 1964.

The club was on the  move again in the 1963 season,  moving its training base from the Parkvale Baths to the Madison Baths at St Joseph's School, where it has remained ever since. A change in fortunes began during the 1963-64 season, when membership surged upward again.
 A new constitution was drawn up and used as the basis for the club to become a fully-incorporated body.

In 1964, the club had its first experience of a drowning. On Labour Day, a man swimming south of the patrolled area in a reasonably calm area dived into a wave and never re-appeared. The club spent many days helping to search for him, and eventually assisted in the recovery of his body.

In 1965 a loud speaker system was erected on the beach to help with crowd control and help with club activities.

In 1966 the clubhouse underwent another upgrade, with the exterior clad in fibrolight and the inside painted throughout.  Assistance by the  Waimarama Domain Board was returned through club members keeping the Domain tidy, cutting the lawns and maintaining the toilets.

In 1968, however, the task of maintaining the Domain was proving too much. The Domain Board resumed responsibility and employed a caretaker. By then, patrols were being fully maintained on the beach and many rescues were taking place. 

In 1969, senior clubmember John Martin was chosen to represent Hawke's Bay at a five-week lifesaving seminar in California.
He gained a huge amount of knowledge there, and was later instrumental in the designing and implementing Waimarama's  beach alarm and rescue system. It incorporates a series of telegraph poles, each equipped with a hand phone, positioned at 400 yard intervals along the beach north and south of the look-out tower.  The tower is the base to which all these phones are connected and is in turn in contact by radio to the Landrover rescue unit.  The rescue unit is equipped with 500-yard lifeline, rescue tubes, boards and first aid equipment

The  role of women in the club was strictly limited during its earlier years. Initially, it had three keen  women members, but they were not allowed to be lifesavers, or to enter the clubrooms. It's only since the mid-to-late 1970s that girls have been accepted as surf lifesavers.  During the 1950s and 60s, their role was as supporters and helpers on the sidelines.

 "It was very chauvinistic," says Nick. They got into the club itself only because they had gone along to the first public meeting with members of the Heretaunga Swimming Club. Nick doesn't recall any of the Hollywood-style glamour that now surrounds surf lifesaving. "I have no idea. We were all friends around the swimming baths. There was no glamour." Don says it was " a boys' camaraderie thing".

"There was a lot of testosterone around. The girls stayed in the camping ground. The boys, you had to feed yourself. We probably came out and were on a fast for the whole weekend. Maybe there were tins of spaghetti in the camping ground." Just as the opposite sex were not allowed to become a distraction, neither was alcohol. "We never drank during the day," says Don, "although we must have had a drink after a meal, then told stories and lies, then fell asleep."

The development of the club's base at Waimarama was a different story. It drew on the wider generosity of landowners and the general public, and prompted local council support. We would talk to the cockies They would donate two beasts. And somebody gave a dollop of money - £500-£700. That was an awful lot of money," says Don.

"We used to get money by taking the blanket up and down the beach on New Year's Eve. People would toss in donations, they had cash in their pockets in those days. "One guy tossed in a bottle of bourbon, so we raffled it. That was a good fundraiser." Then Don's father, who built the Arataki motor camp at Havelock North, built the surfclub shop . It was a winning fundraiser for several years. Staffed by club girlfriends, it sold fizzy drinks and icecream. "The ice cream used to come out from town in canvas sleeves. If we didn't sell it, it just melted away. We would pick up the sleeves from Blue Moon in Heretaunga St. It all got too much in the end. It probably only lasted a few years," says Don.

The lifesavers enjoyed the shop while it lasted. "Lunch was ice cream when we were on duty. You could swim on that," says Nick.

In the earliest days, Waimarama Domain was a swampy area, much of it owned by the Catholic Church. "We were just using it. Harry got it sorted out," says Don.

Don's father planted a lot of trees in the Domain, "so the council began to take an interest, and it changed from a swamp to a recreational area. Jock Gilray and Bruce Drown re-formed the Waimarama Domain Board. Bruce was the chairman."

Don can remember club members having plenty of time to sunbathe on the beach during the early days. "We used to get as black as berries".
But as Waimarama has developed and grown over the years, the club and the beach have become a lot busier. The annual summer carnivals the club began holding in 1954 still draw crowds of thousands to enjoy good old-fashioned fun in the form of beauty contests and sandcastles.

As club chairman Noel Houston puts it: "Now on a summer carnival day you get up to 7000 people on the beach. You can't just patrol between the flags. You need to be much more mobile."

Looking at the way the club they helped to form has thrived and flourished, Don and Nick are very pleased "I'm thrilled," says Don.
Nick has a message for young members: "Keep up with the job and participate in  activities and try to get as much enjoyment out of it as we did."

Noel Houston, Chairman of Waimarama Surf Lifesaving Club, ex director on the board of Surf Lifesaving HB.

Mr Houston qualified as a 14-year-old, in 1974-75.
"The New Zealand nationals were held at Waimarama in 1975.  I was there, helping.
Waimarama has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. It was a natural progression. A lot of my friends were involved, with the national association, with the beach and the sea."

He worked hard to get up to standard.  "I was only ever an average swimmer. I remember spending weeks and weeks at  St John's in the pool with David Poppelwell, learning the skills needed to pass the exam. It was a drawn-out experience. Today, a lot of the techniques have changed, but the basic requirement of swimming, first aid, is still a prerequisite."

Modern equipment has changed the skills required by surf lifesavers, but there is always a role for members of any age and experience, he says.
"There's a slogan for surf lifesaving:  'In it for Life'.  "There's no age limit. We have members in their 50s and 60s who still active patrollers. Piha has some in their 70s who help out. Perhaps they move into administration roles."

The secret to a successful club lies with getting children involved with "a lot of parental support".  Waimarama's membership was 90 active patrolling members during the summer of 2011-12.  Added to that were about 70 in the junior programme.

The club is in the fortunate position of having built up a solid portfolio assets. The Waimarama clubrooms cost $500,000. They sit on a prime leasehold site, housing $60,000 of rescue craft, skis and boards, and $50,000 - $70,000 of competition equipment. The clubrooms at Windsor Park  in Hastings are worth about $250,000, and earn some income being rented out for functions.  "I don't know how many clubs around NZ would still have two clubrooms like that," Mr Houston says.

The Clive River is the club's training base.  "We have storage containers there, so it's easy for members to go out and train after work and during winter."  Television has raised the public profile of surf lifesaving, through programmes such as Piha Rescue, and televised competitions.
That helps when the Waimarama club goes looking for sponsors.

"You get a good hearing. It's one of the more credible not-for-profit organisations in the marketplace."

A lot of hard work by a lot of people has got Waimarama to where it is, but that doesn't mean the hard yards are done.
"We need to keep the different parts of the organisation balanced, encouraging people to engage their strengths and get lots of people doing lots of things, instead of a few overloaded.

"For me, it is important to get a sustainable structure in place so the club can organically grow and build its own momentum.  "There are some prepared to put their hand up and step up to the mark whenever there is work to be done. The challenge is to expand that group, shoulder-tap them. It can be something as simple as making sure the vans have warrants of fitness and petrol in them, or tow a trailer to a carnival in Napier," he says.

Children of the 21st Century have many choices in recreation, and are often competing at top levels in their chosen sport. Two prime examples would be competitive swimming or kayaking.

"Sometimes they have to make choices," Mr Houston says.  "Surf lifesaving tends to attract a reasonably unselfish type of person. Their leadership and responsibility improve, and they become contributors.  "You don't have a lot of trouble with the kids. You don't get problems with drugs or  the aggressive behaviours of wider society. The competitions keep kids focussed. It keeps them busy and fit and grounded."