Memories of former members Nick Hodgson and Don Grooby, recorded
Saturday, April 25, 2009. Plus interview with Noel Houston. 2400
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
The club hit a rocky patch in 1960-61, when membership began a
fall into single figures as older members got married and drifted
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'
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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."