Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Rachelle Balez
Interviewer: Edie Swift
Interview date: 9 April 2022
Edie Today is April 9th, 2022, and I am Edie Swift. I’m interviewing Rachelle Balez for the Illawarra Stories oral history project. It’s run by the Wollongong City Library. We will discuss Rachelle’s involvement as patrol captain of the Wombarra Scarborough Surf Club, so if you want to start telling us all about this, I think it’s really exciting.
Rachelle So, I have been a patrolling member of Scarborough Wombarra Surf Club since I was 16, so that would have been back in 2002, I think. And I had been in the club since before that as a little nipper. So, growing up on the weekends, spending each Sunday down at the beach, and then when I was 16, I got my bronze medallion and became a patrolling member.
Edie And what was that like, getting that?
Rachelle That was really fun. I was the only one of my age group, so when I did nippers, a lot of my friend’s kind of grew out of it, and between 14 and 16 I hadn’t been involved with the club. But my dad at that stage was a patrolling member for Scarborough, Wombarra, and there were very low on people that could patrol the beach on the weekends. So, he really encouraged me to get my bronze so that I could do patrol with him, because I found myself at the beach with him most weekends anyway, so I may as well be there and being able to perform a duty. So, I remember when I did my bronze medallion, I was the only girl in the group and I was probably the youngest by 10 to 15 years. Usually, it’s the nipper mum and dad’s that are doing their Bronze medallion because they’re at the beach.
And so, I was the only one of my age group and gender basically doing the Bronze medallion at the time. And once I got my Bronze medallion I started patrolling and probably for the first five to maybe 10 years of patrolling I was always the only girl on the patrol and again, usually the youngest by 10 to 15 years. But that was never a problem there, everyone that I patrolled with was super lovely, we’d sit there we’d play cards and back then Wombarra Beach was a very different place. It was pretty much only locals that would show up. If tourists did come down into Wollongong, they’d stop at Austinmer or Coledale, but they didn’t know Wombarra existed. So, you usually knew everybody on the beach because they were your neighbours and there were the families that I went to school with. So yeah, it was really lovely. I was really glad that I got my Bronze medallion back then. It was a nice thing to do.
Edie And then as we you progressed, and it looked like there was a problem getting just recently getting people to patrol and life savers and and why did that happen and how did you come up with the crew that you have?
Rachelle Yeah. So, I think for Scarborough Wombarra being a really small club, we have always tended to struggle getting enough members of the community to patrol. It’s been an issue continuously over the years and it tends to come in, come in ebbs and flows where we get a big increase in numbers and then it slowly drops down. And the hard thing is when the numbers drop down, it puts more pressure on the people that are patrolling, and then that tends to wear them out and burn them out, so you lose more. And so, a couple of years ago, we were in one of those lulls where we didn’t have many people and we had a change in President. And the new President, Anthony, his number one priority was to get more people joining the club and to become patrolling members.
So, he did a really strong community drive and call for help, basically saying if you wanted to do your Bronze medallion or you wanted to patrol, come to Scarborough Wombarra Beach, um and get involved. And thankfully that was quite successful and we got a big increase in numbers and the other strategy that he had is how when I was 14 and sort of finished nippers, myself and my friends sort of stopped being involved in the Surf club, um, and he made sure he kept those kids engaged and progressing into their surf rescue certificate and then their Bronze medallion. So instead of losing all of the young members of our club when they became teenagers, he would keep them together as a big group so that social aspect was still there, um and hopefully progressed them through until they can become patrolling members. And so, I think it’s really that component that, um, landed me in the position that I was this year, where I’ve now done my Silver medallion and can be a patrol captain. And we had such a big group of young patrolling members that Ant was able to split them into two groups and I took, um sort of responsibility of a large group of girls. So it gave us the first all-female patrol group, um, in the surf club which is really fantastic.
Edie Now why do they all, were these people from the area who signed up for the All-Girls Patrol?
Rachelle Yes. So these were already, um as far as I know, local girls who had been doing nippers, so they may have been in the club since there were seven and eight years old and each year would progress through, um their nippers activities until they were then too old for nippers but could get their Surf Rescue Certificate at 14 and become sort of junior lifesavers and then eventually progress to get their Bronze medallion and become senior life savers. So, we’ve had one of the girls on my patrol, Kathleen Watson. She’s from originally the Blue Mountains and had just moved into the local area and is a lifeguard for the, like the swimming pools and she saw the call out that Ant had done last year saying come join our club if you want to get involved. Um, so yeah, she signed up and so she’s one of the senior members on my patrol. And the other more senior member, Evie, she is a local girl, she did Nippers and I’ve done patrol with her before over the years, um so there’s sort of myself, Evie and Kat, there’s the three senior members and then we have anywhere between 7 to 14 junior lifesavers.
Edie So when they go, um, if they’re going to be on your patrol, what do they have to do to qualify?
Rachelle So to be on the patrol, um for myself, Kat and Evie as the senior members, we need to do our Bronze medallion and then for the junior members, they’re all Surf Rescue certificates and that is similar to what, um the senior members do in terms of training, but just with less responsibility. So, we all need to be assessed on our physical attributes in regards to being able to swim, um competently and confidently for quite a distance we need to be able to run up and down the beach, swim and then run again. We also need to know how to perform resuscitation and then be involved in rescues and know the beach signals and how to interact with people on the beach. Because I think a big part of our work is not necessarily rescuing people when they’re in trouble but preventing the rescues from happening in the first place. So that’s being able to read the beach, know where it’s safe to put the flags, know where the risk areas are and being able to talk with members of the public so that we can educate them where the safest place is for them to swim. Which is definitely something that’s increased a lot over the last couple of years with increased tourism into the Illawarra. Where before it was always the locals on the beach who had been through Nippers knew their surf safety and knew how to swim, now we have a lot of people that it may be their first time in the ocean when they come to our beach, so they have no awareness of how dangerous the surf can be.
Edie How do you do that? How-how do you, um talk to them?
Rachelle Yeah, that’s a really great question. So sometimes we need to go off visual cues. So, there will often be people that will go into the water and they’re just not wearing appropriate clothes. They’ll be trying to swim in a tracksuit, which is never a good idea. Um so we can then advise them that they should go to the pool if they need to stay covered up for cultural reasons, or to change into some more appropriate clothes if that’s possible.
Other times you can see by their body language that they’re hesitant to get into the water or they’ve chosen the worst place to get into the water in terms of often where there’s a rip, the water can look quite calm and still. So, to the untrained eye that looks like a very safe place to go swimming, um but it’s probably the worst because you’re gonna get sucked out 40 metres, um to the ocean. So always looking at the surf and seeing how people are behaving, um where they’re choosing to swim and then just going up and having a really friendly conversation with them and nine times out of ten people are really happy to be educated on, um surf safety in the beach and are really grateful that we’re there and I think it’s that engagement with the community that makes it so rewarding because most of them are really, really grateful that we are there and giving up our time to keep everybody safe.
Edie Now I don’t understand what’s the difference between getting your medallion and the other thing you said was a rescue something..
Rachelle a Rescue Certificate?
Edie Yeah, what’s the difference?
Rachelle So the difference is the Bronze medallion means that you are a fully qualified, in one sense, surf lifesaver. The Surf Rescue certificate means you’re a junior Surf life saver, so you have a lot reduced responsibilities. You’re not able to operate the radios, so as Bronze medallions and surf lifesavers we have radios that connect us not only within the club, but to all of the surf clubs along the whole of the Illawarra. And it’s that way that we can talk to one another and coordinate resources if there is a rescue, for example. So like for example, at the moment with all the rain and erosion we’ve had on Wombarra beach we can’t get our boat or our um ATV so our all-terrain vehicle onto the beach, which really limits our rescue capacity if something serious was to happen because we can’t get a boat out to pick someone up. So that’s where the radios come really handy because then we can radio Coledale or Coalcliff and be like we need your help, can you come? Ah, as well as the jet skis that are patrolling so Bronze members can use the radios, but surf rescue certificates can’t use the radios.
But if we were in a, say a rescue scenario, they would be really good to go up and run and get the defibrillator or some of the oxygen, bring down the first aid kit. They’re a great, um resource to patrol the beach, look out to see if there is any incidences and then call for the more senior life, um surf lifesaving members to come and do a rescue. So, they’re, yeah, they’re junior life savers who are in training to become fully fledged, basically.
Edie So when you have every year, do they have to show that they can run on the beach, and they go in the surf and they do what?
Rachelle Yeah, definitely. So, at the start of every season, we all have to do proficiency regardless of what stage you are, whether you’re a Surf Rescue Certificate, a Bronze medallion or a Silver medallion, which is the patrol captain. And we need to be able to run on the beach, swim and then do another run within I think it’s 8 minutes we need to show that we’re able to do a rescue and work as a team doing resuscitation. We need to know our basic signals in terms of if a rescue was happening and someone went out on the surf rescue board to search say for a missing person, or to, ah pick up someone and bring them in and the people on the beach needed to communicate with them, you can’t really shout a 100 metres out to sea. So, there’s hand signals that we use to communicate what people on the beach want to say to the people on the, um out on the board or the boat and vice versa. So, we get tested on that each year, um and basic first aid just to make sure that if something was going to happen, we’re all up to scratch and know what we’re doing.
Edie And how did you get out this year with all the rain? Did you get out in the ocean to do a test?
Rachelle Yeah, we were really lucky that we snuck it in at the very start of the season. So, the season was disrupted not only with the rain but then also with COVID. So, when our season started, I think we were at the, the middle of the 2nd wave, um and the 2nd lockdown of COVID and not everybody was vaccinated. So the Surf Club had made the decision that they weren’t going to force anyone to be patrol- to do patrols, but at the same time they didn’t want to close the beach because especially at Scarborough Wombarra it’s quite a dangerous beach, so the surf club as a whole made the decision that if you were happy to patrol, you could, but you didn’t have to. And so we didn’t start doing rostered patrols, I think, until October, so usually the beach opens in September and it wasn’t until the end of October that we sort of officially then started our season and then I think since then I’ve have had 3 patrols where we had the beach open and it was safe to swim and the rest have all been closed due to storms, the tsunami warning or pollution from all the rain we’ve had recently. So thankfully in our very first patrol we were able to do our proficiency and make sure that we were all up to scratch. But it’s really been a struggle this year.
Edie How far do you have to swim out?
Rachelle I think we – usually we have to swim I think it’s meant to be, um 1 to 200 meters but usually it’s beyond the break, um so where the waves go all calm again and then back in. So, showing that we can get out through all the waves a little bit further, turn around and come back. So, I think it’s usually a 4 or 800 meter run, um 200 metre swim and then another 400 meter run.
Edie How do you train for that?
Rachelle So I thankfully I really love running so I spend most of my time running and that keeps me physically fit on a cardio level. For swimming, I don’t swim regularly, but I do surf, so I guess the paddling, um kind of keeps me swim fit in that regard, but most, I think at least on my patrol, most of the people are just naturally physically fit. They do some sort of, um weekly exercise and that’s enough to make sure that we’re up to scratch in further proficiency.
Edie Do you have to report to the President of the Surf Club?
Rachelle Not directly, but we do have to keep logs that the broader, um Surf Life Saving branch of the Illawarra keeps track of. So every patrol we have an app on our phones that I log into where I take, um hourly stats to say how many people are on the beach, how many people are in between the flags, um if we’ve done any rescues, if we’ve had to prevent any rescues, ah as well as just the the basic weather and conditions. And so, I update the general Beach status 3 times within my shift and then I update how many users are on the beach once an hour. So, unless there’s anything serious that happens, I don’t need to do- um, report directly to the President. But we tend to touch base in the lead up to my patrol just to say everyone’s good to go and that I have enough Members on the beach, um ready for my patrol. And then at the end, just to say that yeah, we’re all good, nothing serious happened.
Edie What does – do you call him on the phone, or does he come in?
Rachelle So we have a WhatsApp group, er, group chat, so we’re able to- all the patrol captains are able to communicate with each other and that’s been a really efficient way of, if one- so we, we have a requirement that we have to have at least three patrolling Members with their bronze medallion on the beach and then the rest can be as many other surf rescue certificates or bronze medallions. But we need to have that minimum of three. So especially during COVID, there’s been times where quite a few of my patrolling members have been in isolation or have been sick with COVID and haven’t been able to come to their shift. So, then I can talk with the other patrol captains and be like, do you have anyone on your group that could come join my group for the weekend and vice versa, to make sure that we always have enough fully qualified people on the beach.
Edie So did you have to have the humans in the surf with you, when you do your, um you know when you qualify, so you have to have someone out there who’s playing the patient?
Rachelle Yeah, definitely.
Edie Yeah, so you have to bring them in.
Edie How do you bring them in?
Rachelle So it depends. You can do practice board rescues, or you can do it with the yellow tube. So, despite the fact that I surf, I tend to favour, um the tube for rescues. So basically, we will send the patient out first, they’ll swim beyond the, the break and then just wait for us to come. They’ll put their hand up to pretend that they’re calling for assistance and then we’ll swim out as fast as we can. We will approach. The way that we approach someone in the water is you don’t want to go straight up to them because chances are they’re panicking, so you wanna start talking with them and get their attention. If it’s possible you want to push the tube to them first so that they can grab that, because if you approach them, chances are they’re just going to grab you. And then they could push you under the water and potentially cause you to drown. Um, we have exit strategies for if that happens, so you need to prepare yourself to hold your breath and go, dive deep if someone does grab onto you, um but you gen- generally, you’ll push the tube, let them grab that, and you’ll keep talking to them in a calm way, saying I’m gonna come around behind you and clip you into the tube. You’re going to be OK. We’re going to swim back into the, um ocean, back into the shore, and then we’ll swim together and kind of catch some waves back till we get to the shore and then usually the rest of the team will be there ready to help carry them if they’re- if needed up the beach so that you can perform CPR if it was required. Ah, if you’re doing a board rescue, it’s a little bit different in that you’ll paddle out to them and then you can pull them up onto the board and you’ll catch the waves back, um yeah, you’ll catch the surf back in with the patient.
Edie Who trains you when you you have your tryouts?
Edie Does someone have to train?
Rachelle Yeah, we, so we do need to be trained. When I did it, I think it was a six-week course run for like two hours every Saturday, but now they’ve condensed it into one or two weekends. So, it’s like really intense learning. Um, but there’s people within our club and other clubs that are examiners and trainers, so they have done additional qualification and training themself to then be able to teach these critical skills.
And so, they will right at the start of each season, we’ll do a call out to the local community saying if you’re interested or curious about getting your bronze medallion, we’re running these training courses on these days. And then people from the community, if they do want to become surf life savers can come and do these bronze medallion courses. And then at the end they’re qualified to be patrol members. So, we hope that if they come and train with us, then they’ll want to be patrolling members with us. And I know I think it’s Scarborough, if you are patrolling member, we waive membership to the club. So that’s also been another incentive that Ant brought in to increase membership was that if you’re patrolling you get it for free. So that’s been really good.
Edie And you have social things that kind of, ah help people enjoy being in the patrol. I mean you have dinners and things-
Edie is that right?
Rachelle We have um, four, at the end of the season, we’ll have our kind of end of season wrap up event where we’ll not only give out the certificates and awards for people who’ve gotten their bronze medallion or their surf rescue certificate, but it’s also a great social event where everyone can have a good meal together, a drink at the bar, maybe, um all the kids from Nippers and their parents are invited as well. And I really like these events because often when you’re patrolling you only know the people on your patrol, and maybe cross paths with the people that are on the patrol before or after you. So, when we patrol, we patrol for 3 and a 1/2 hours. So, we’ll have a morning shift or an afternoon shift. So, I only really see the people that are on, say, the afternoon shift or the morning shift before us if we’re in the afternoon. Um, so these social events then allow you to kind of get to know all the other people that are in your patrol and sort of develop that comradery, which I think is really, really important and really nice. And-
Edie Where, where do you have it?
Rachelle So the la- last year it was at Scarborough Wombarra Bowling Club.
Rachelle And then a couple- for the couple of years before that, we used to go to the deck in, um Thirroul above Ryan’s pub and have a big sit-down dinner altogether. So, both were really, both venues were really fantastic, and I enjoyed um, yeah, I enjoyed them both. Though we also used to have a, I think it was a brewery evening where we would have the local breweries come and kind of do a wine and beer night, and that was another good source of fundraising for the club. So, you’d buy tickets for that and then there’d be food and another good way to sort of, yeah, get to know each other outside of patrolling hours.
Edie And, do- you also are encouraging young women because you, you are in an organization that does that.
Edie Yes. Or a program.
Rachelle Yeah. So, I’m quite passionate about gender equity, diversity, inclusivity, which of course is, you know, they’re all buzzwords at the moment, but I think are really fundamental. And I know for myself, when I was going through my bronze medallion being the only girl, it was not an issue for me and I always felt very welcome. But, at the same time it was also quite lonely because I was the only girl, and it would have been nice, you know, just to have some, to be able to see other girls achieving things within the club. I never doubted that there was nothing I couldn’t achieve, but it took a lot of energy thinking, ohh, I could be contro- patrol captain or maybe I could get my IRB licence and drive the boat and without that reference point to see it, I needed to use, yeah, sort of a lot, a lot more of my own willpower, um and mental energy to know that it was possible and I was capable of that.
Well, I think when you see that modelled throughout the club, you don’t have to spend time and energy believing because you already know it’s possible and, so, it’s been really nice to have an all-girls patrol in that regard to know that of course we know it is possible, but to see that represented and you know, not all goals are like me and are comfortable necessarily in a heavily male dominated area, so for some there’s a sense of um, I think a bit more protection being able to be in an all-girls group and it sort of plays down some of those insecurities that you can have. That said, it does bring its own challenges in terms of whenever I’ve been on male dominated patrols, there’s a certain physicality that comes with that because you know, men tend to be a bit stronger and bigger than girls. And myself, I’m a tall girl, but I’m not necessarily a very strong girl and if I’m trying to pull, you know, someone out of the water that’s 120 kilos, I’m just physically going to struggle with that.
So that means, especially now as a patrol captain, I have to think differently and problem solve differently of how my team of, you know, 14- and 15-year-old girls who again may be very physically fit, um and strong minded but may lack part of the physical strength. How are we going to work as a team to say get, um a larger individual out of the water safely, um without putting our own safety at risk. And they were things that I never had to think about when I was on an all-boys patrol because there was usually at least one or two blokes that was quite big and it was like, OK, you’re the one that’s doing the heavy lifting basically because you’re physically up for it. Um, and I think that’s the other benefit of having more girls in the club and say an all-female patrol as these challenges then can be addressed and we know what to do or how to implement, you know, a safe scenario to rescue people.
So yeah, I think it’s really encouraging that we have so many girls in the club that we can have an all-girls patrol. And as I said before, you know it doesn’t matter for some girls, but I think having that safe space or less male dominated space can be, um can play a factor if someone is a little more insecure or less confident or just timid in some regards.
Edie Now as a scientist you also are encouraging women aren’t you?
Edie Are you in a program to do that as well?
Edie What is that?
Rachelle So I’ve been fortunate to be in a program called Homeward Bound. So that’s an international, um initiative for women in science. So, I’m a molecular biologist, and science, similar to engineering, maths and technology-based industries, so the STEM industries, they tend to have a lower female representation. And why this is such an issue is just how I was saying with the patrolling, um having an all-female group means we have unique challenges and have to think differently, with science and technology based industries we’re problem solving and we’re working out that interface of the unknown and if we don’t have women or people from other backgrounds engaged in these this problem solving, then we’re missing out so much capacity to solve problems more efficiently and more, um equitably, because if you don’t have the women contributing of, you know what some needs are, then it’s not going to be built into the design or the problem solving of the issues.
Edie Do you mentor them or what do you do? Do you have programs?
Rachelle So in that program I was mentored, and how it would work is every year there is a collection of a hundred women from across the globe and we go through a one year leadership program in terms of being taught different leadership skills and then at the end of that 12 months, we all go on a ship to Antarctica for three weeks, and-
Edie Every year?
Rachelle Yeah, every yea- so I, I don’t go to Antarctica every year, I only do it once, but each year there’s a new cohort of a hundred women. So that initial aim was to have a thousand women in STEM, um be trained over 10 years and upskilled with leadership skills, basically. And the aim of this is, there is women in science, but they’re continually passed over for leadership roles due to kind of systemic gender inequities that are built into the system similar to racism. And-
Edie Well, we’ll go on now to the um, back to the Surf Club and um, you certainly did a wonderful job summing that, what you just did up and also with the Surf Club. Now, is there anything more you’d like to say about what you’re doing with the Surf Club?
Rachelle I don’t think so. I think it’s just been, it’s been really nice watching the club evolve in different ways over the years and I think at the moment it’s in a really strong position, both in terms of its membership, the comradery within the club, and financially as well, being a small club means we come from a small drawing area of people, so we tend to exhaust the life savers if they’re not adequately supported, but I’m hoping at the moment, if we can retain our Members, we’ll be able to keep it as a really fun, um place and somewhere that people do wanna come and volunteer and spend their time because it’s a – being able to save a life or have those skills that you can apply in different areas is um, yeah, it’s kind of priceless in that way.
Edie Well, thank you very much. Would you donate this to the Illawarra stories oral history project?
Rachelle Yeah, of course.