The iconic image of a bronzed Australian surf lifesaver is invariably male but, in truth, women comprise 50 per cent of the 21,000 active patrols in NSW.
That wasn’t the case four decades ago, when women were confined to administrative duties if they chose to join the uniquely Australian community group.
Bermagui’s Sue Hunt remembers successfully completing her Royal Life Saving Bronze Medallion course in 1978 but also previously being told she wouldn’t be awarded one “because I was a girl”.
“I had to wait until I was 47 to get it,” she says, with a laugh.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of women’s involvement in active surf lifesaving duties.
Eight Port Kembla women were the first to be involved. They achieved their Bronze Medallions in the middle of winter after hatching a clever plan. The women trained all the previous summer so they were ready when the regulations changed on 1 July, 1980, and then flew north to warmer waters to complete their test.
“It took a period of a few years before it [women in patrols] took off,” says Bert Hunt, Moruya SLSC life member. “To be honest, I suspect we would struggle to have surf clubs today without a female component. They are such an important part of what we do.”
The first Moruya woman to get her Bronze Medallion was Delena Jones in 1981. She was quickly followed by others, including Loraine Bunt, whose parents, Arthur and Myril, were surf lifesaving royalty.
Further down the NSW South Coast, Kerryn Granger nee Wait, earned her Bronze Medallion on 28 November, 1982, and joined the ranks of the Pambula Surf Life Saving Club. In what’s believed to have been another first in NSW, she earned her Inflatable Rescue Boat (IRB) driver’s certificate in 1985. Thirty five years on, she’s a life member and still doing active patrols.
“I’d just moved to the area and was looking for something to get involved in,” she recalls. “I loved swimming so I decided to join the surf club.”
That love of swimming also led Kerryn to the love of her life: Gavin Granger.
“He had been in the surf club since Nippers and was very encouraging of women in surf lifesaving,” says Kerryn. “In fact, he was my instructor. When we were about to get married, Gavin said, ‘I’m never going to give up the surf club, that’s part of who I am.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m in.'”
Once she was married to Gavin, Kerryn was effectively married to the surf club – a decision she’s never regretted.
“It was lovely,” she says. “My husband’s mother was the treasurer, his sister was involved, as was my sister and parents. My brother also rowed for the surf club.
“Our three daughters ended up being Nippers and my three granddaughters, who live here, are all members.
“It’s always been like a big family. The kids knew they could go to anyone for help and they’ve grown through the surf club.”
But the movement wasn’t always so supportive of women in the patrol ranks.
“We did meet with some resistance,” says Kerryn. “The president at the time wasn’t keen to have women involved but I think in the end they needed us. We were a small club, there weren’t enough people to patrol and we were like, ‘Look out, we are here!'”
Even then, the bar was high.
“They were not going to give us our Bronze unless we did everything,” recalls Kerryn. “Back then, you had to swim with the belt. If you didn’t drown on the way out, you would on the way back. As soon as you swam out, the line would drop to the bottom and was very hard to pull. Then you had to secure the patient and were wheeled in, going backwards.
“Then to get the IRB licence, I had to lift the motor onto the boat. I still don’t know how I did that but I was so determined.”
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During the years, Kerryn has been involved in countless rescues, but one in particular springs to mind.
“We live at Pambula Beach, within walking distance of the club,” she says. “My daughter was home from school [sick] and we had a school group from inland at the beach.
“I was down at the beach with Gavin doing patrol and my daughter wandered down – clearly she wasn’t that sick – but thank goodness she did.
“The conditions deteriorated within a matter of 10 minutes and there was a flash rip, with a lot of children in the water and the teachers on the beach without a clue.
“Gavin and I were in the duck [rescue boat] and we were just pulling them out, dragging them to the shore, dropping them off to my daughter and going back out.
“I was screaming at her to get the kids out of the water. We had a guy out the back on the rescue board and he was catching them if they got out that far, and we were taking them back in.
“We rescued between 10 and 15 children that day.”