Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Forfeiting Our Right to Surf Safely

It’s almost summer.
Despite the rain showers all October it is finally starting to feel like summer. The water is unusually warm and we are starting to enjoy those lovely light easterly winds and a perfect medium surf along our coast.
A time when hundreds of young, and not-so-young, people head to their local beach for a body surf, or even to ‘crack a few waves’ on their boogie-boards.
Whilst there is no law that says you can’t enjoy an early morning surf in summer, the truth is, by default, that right has been taken away from all these people.
Because between sunrise at 5.20am and 9am every weekend, 100% of our metro beachfront is handed over to fibreglass board riders. Not even 20 meters of the whole metro beachfront is retained for non-board riders such as those using boogie-boards or for body surfing!
Make no mistake; surfing amongst board riders is dangerous. Gashes to the face and body are common. And that is why on the east-coat of Australia, authorities have year-round, designated areas as ‘non surfboard’ areas. So even when the famous red and yellow flags are not being displayed, there are distinct areas where those who want to have a surf, without being hit by a ‘flying’ fibreglass board, can do so in safety.
Yet here in WA, even in the middle of summer, we have become so paranoid about public liability issues, our surf lifesaving movement won’t even erect the red and yellow flags before 9am when their official surf patrols commence. This leaves almost four hours every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, where board riders can use the entire beach.
And to make matters worse, during those four hours each morning, families – and in particular overseas visitors - coming to any of our beaches have no indication as to where they should swim safely-unless they sit on the beach and wait until 9am when the flags are erected. This would simply not happen in Bondi or Cronulla.
If our dedicated surf lifesavers can’t define a safe swimming area before 9am on a hot January morning we need to ask, what are our paid beach inspectors doing?
Years ago, in the days of the more famous beach inspectors such as Fred Annersley and Eric Hofmaster, the red and yellow flags would be erected by 7am on weekends, giving the thousands of people who arrive for a swim early, a clear indication as to where they could swim safely. Not anymore.
The challenges for non-board riders gets even more complex as when the ‘safe swimming’ flags are erected at 9am, the ‘surfboards only’ signs are naively placed only 1-2 meters away from the swimming area flags. This almost ensures that surfboards will be regularly encroaching on the swimming area and creating a dangerous environment for swimmers.
In Sydney this would be considered madness, yet here in the Wild West, public safety and common sense comes second to legal liability about taking responsibility for the safety of the swimming public.
So what do we need to do?
Our popular beaches should have permanently defined areas where the use of fibreglass boards is prohibited all year round.
In summer, from 1st October to the end of April, earlier morning swimmers could then enjoy the surf in relative safety and then, at 9am when the red and yellow flags are erected, they can be positioned well within this designated no board area, providing plenty of buffer from the dangers of surfboards.
Then in autumn and winter, when no patrols are operating, our main beaches continue to provide a ‘surf board’ protected area for swimmers and boogie-boarders alike.
As the population of Perth increases and more and more baby boomers retire in good health, so does the demand for the use of our beaches all year.
We all deserve the right to enjoy our wonderful surf in relatively safety. We just need our councils and our Surf Lifesaving Association to use some common sense to create the surfing environment that is fair to everyone.

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