Marcoola Surf Life Saving Club lifesavers Scott Savimaki, Mark Schreiber, Jaye Featherby and Peter Allan are dedicated volunteers.
Marcoola Surf Life Saving Club lifesavers Scott Savimaki, Mark Schreiber, Jaye Featherby and Peter Allan are dedicated volunteers. Stuart Cumming

Our surf lifesaving clubs: An industry worth millions

IT'S an essential part of Australian beach culture that saves lives and provides a treasured hub for our communities. On the Coast, our combined clubs turn over millions of dollars a year. Janine Hill looks at the work done locally and speaks to local club members about why they do what they do.

IT's the Sunshine Coast's most visited tourist attraction; that long stretch of sand-meets-sea between Noosa and Caloundra.

Nearly 1.2 million people visited 12 patrolled beaches along the stretch in the 2015-16 season, and that was just on weekends and public holidays.

Watching over them was a quiet army of 3000 volunteers, the active patrol members of the Sunshine Coast's surf lifesaving clubs.

Behind that army, another layer of troops do their bit, manning radio rooms, curating equipment, rostering, budgeting, shepherding nippers, and sitting on committees.

Keeping the beaches safe takes a lot more than putting red and yellow caps on and planting a couple of flag poles in the sand.

The dozen surf clubs between Noosa and Caloundra spent more than $7.5 million on the business of keeping people safe.

While most were bank-rolled by supporters clubs with bars and poker machines, some were more reliant upon subscriptions, sponsors, and grants.

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Noosa, which these days has taken the struggling Peregian Beach Surf Life Saving Club into the fold, plays with the biggest numbers, with an income of $2.4 million in 2015-16.

Mudjimba, which has no supporters club or poker machines, had the tiniest purse, $176,000.

Each club faces its own challenges.

Denis Abel, president of the Kawana Waters Surf Life Saving Club, said location played a key role in support for the club.

The clubhouse boasts a renovated dining area and beer garden overlooking parkland to the ocean, but both were empty on an early afternoon one day this week.

"Because we're on the local clubs, we find it harder to get members. We're not on the tourist strip. We haven't got the high-rise and holiday units," he said.

On the other hand, the club has a loyal following in the local community, from sponsor, Budget Direct, to life members who help with training.

"The way we like to see it, we're part of the community and the community supports us as well," Mr Abel said.

Like Kawana, Marcoola Surf Life Saving Club is a smaller club off the main tourist drag, although resort-style buildings like Surfair are barely five minutes away down the road.

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Raffles, its supporters club, and nippers keep it going.

The club also brings in a few dollars by providing services at cultural events on the Coast and the annual door knock, although not a big money spinner, still brings in a few thousand dollars.

President David McLean said maintaining equipment and keeping the clubhouse up to scratch, be it upgrading toilets or replacing rusty hinges, were major expenses.

He said the club had a strong "core group" of members but the challenge was to keep them interested and enthused.

"I think it gets harder and harder every year with the onus on volunteers, with all the compliances, but I think our secret has been our small community, our family-style club," Mr McLean said.

"You get to know each other. We get to see each other every two-and-a-half to three weeks on patrol. You might not see each other for four to five weeks at some of the bigger clubs."

Steve Wieland, president of Maroochydore Surf Life Saving and Supporters Club, one of the larger clubs, also identified the demands of compliance as an issue for volunteers.

"It's hard to get people to come in for six or seven weeks to get their bronze (medallion)," he said.

RELATED: The lifesaving lifestyle: 'We moved here to be by the beach'

He said as much training as possible was now done online so members could attend to it at their convenience.

Although the Maroochydore area is changing, Mr Wieland said membership was relatively stable but there have been changes within the numbers.

While nearly all of the club members in the 1970s were from Brisbane, about three quarters are now from the "greater Sunshine Coast", the area between Gympie and Morayfield, and there has been a growth in older members who cannot necessarily patrol but pitch in with radio communications.

An issue which the club has identified is the loss of young members in their teens, but it is not peculiar to Maroochydore; other clubs, both small and large, experience the same loss.

Maroochydore is working to combat the drain with an increased emphasis on fun social activities for the age group to create "ties that bind".

RELATED: Lifesaving gold medallist started out hating the sport


The club has taken steps to ensure its future viability by amending the constitution and putting the same office bearers for the surf lifesaving club into the same positions at the supporters club.

"We want all the money from the supporters club to go into lifesaving," Mr Wieland said.

Mooloolaba Surf Life Saving Club knows well how easily a club can find itself in deep water financially.

The club was about $7 million in debt when Dave Jewry was elected president last year on a "user pays" platform.

His election coincided with the departure of some elite athletes and about 50 members.

Mr Jewry said the club had ended up in a hole after a $6.5 million building refurbishment followed by spending on a sports program before it had made up ground, at the same time a revenue was flagging.

He was not sorry to see an end to expensive gyms and coaches, and said the savings, combined with the sale of a property, were helping the club clear debt.

"Give us another two or three years and we'll hopefully have cleared most of it," he said.

Mr Jewry said experienced club members were now coaching on a voluntary basis and there was a "general feeling" of enthusiasm for the club and bringing on younger members.

He watched 120 nippers doing board training out front of the club at 4.30pm on Wednesday this week.

"That's what all clubs are about," he said.

"The nippers are happy, the nipper parents can see what their kids are doing, and we've been very careful to make sure that everything we raise isn't going back into servicing debt, it's going into lifesaving."

Mr Jewry said investing time and resources in nippers programs was a key to the future of surf lifesaving in the face of competition from other sports and activities which pull people away from the movement.

"If we can retain 10% of them to stay on every year, that fixes the problem."

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