Saving Life Savers

Swansea-Caves Beach Lifesavers in their Life Vests

As these men posed on Caves Beach, on the peninsula between Lake Macquarie and the Pacific Ocean, it’s tempting to imagine that the photographer might have yelled out a request such as, ‘C’mon boys, smile for the camera!’. The two jovial lifesavers at the left responded, but the three men on the right just squinted awkwardly in the intense sunlight.

But all stood tall and proud to represent the Swansea-Caves Beach Surf Life Saving Club. The club had commissioned the photographer that morning in 1959 to take various photos, particularly of their canary yellow clubhouse (in partial view at the right of the photo) and its lifesavers. After being photographed in their distinctive maroon coloured march-past suits, the men changed outfits for this shot, donning their white swimming trunks and all-important surf boat life vests.

For generations, throughout deep history, the Awabakal people visited the area now known as Caves Beach, for fishing, collecting grasstree resin for spearmaking, and to use the local fine-grained quartzite for making tools. After British settlers arrived, they initially called it The Plains. Swimming and surfing were popular there since the early twentieth century and by 1929 the beach had its very own surf lifesaving club.

Seen behind the row of lifesavers in this image, is the tuck stern surf boat Tom Humphreys. When taking such boats into the surf for rescues and competitions, all Australian surf lifesavers wore flotation devices. If the surf was rough and a crew member was tossed overboard, he needed to float and be easy for rescuers to see in the waves – hence the bright yellow, high visibility colour of the vests. But lifesavers found them restrictive while they rowed, and once the men went overboard, the vests prevented them from diving to avoid being hit by other boats. So, after 1966 life jackets were no longer compulsory and other safety devices replaced them such as helmets and coloured singlets and rashies.

But by 2014, their life-saving function was recognised again, when Surf Life Saving Australia mandated the wearing of certified lifejackets in all surf rescue boats.