Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 17, June 1973
by BEN HEATH
(Long before Waihi Beach became a County Town it was a favourite picnic area and the magnificent surf was a temptation to venture out too far for safety. As early as 1920, a surf reel with small cart wheels, a heavy canvas and cork belt, and a stout coir line, was on the beach manned by the late W.M. Wallnut [Wallnutt – E] and local swimming club boys. On New Years Day 1926 it was used to rescue Jim Keogan and George Morton from extra heavy surf. Small beginnings such as this inspired what might well be called the larger "Service Club". Not only does it render great service to the community but it provides an enjoyable strenuous challenge to its members.) Ed.)
The "Waihi Surf and Life Saving Club" was "born" on Sunday afternoon, 17th March 1935. At a meeting held in Keatings Tea Room at the Beach, interested persons met with visiting representatives of the Auckland Association and the Tauranga Ladies Team. As a result of the discussions which took place, it was decided to elect a Committee to further the establishment of a Club. Those elected were: Patron Mr. W.M. Wallnutt; Committee: J.J. Callaghan, R.J. Spiers, J.C. Cornthwaite, C. Hovell, C. Jarvis, C. Byrn, P. Hilderbrand. It is interesting to note that the latter two people were members of a proposed Ladies Team which was in existence for several years immediately following the Club's formation. The Committee, along with other interested persons, such as Fred. Raddings, Bonnie Pipe, W. Collier, Norm. Wynn and Joyce Stobie held several meetings at which they adopted Club colours and set membership fees at: 5/- for men and 2/6 for ladies.
A meeting regarded as inaugural was held in the Miners' Reading Room on 27th May 1935 and the Club Proper was formed, new Officers and a new Committee being elected. It was decided that the first Annual General Meeting be held on October 1st and that all financial members at 27th May 1935 be regarded as Foundation Members. They were as follows:- Messrs F. Raddings, W.M. Wallnutt, H.R. Thomas, A .T .Maunder, J.L. Gilmour, J.H. Banks, J.J. Callaghan, N.G. Keatings, R.J. Spiers, N.R. Wynn, W. Davidson, H.G. Cornthwaite, W.C. Collier, A. Bonnicie, E.W. McCollough, S. Callaghan, C. Hovell, J. Cornthwaite, W. Lindsay, W. Spalding, C. Jarvis, Misses B. Pipe (the first Women's Captain), J. Stobie, C. Byrn, P. Grant, L. Collier, E. Cleave and Mrs. B. Mackie.
By the 17th October 1935 membership had again increased, people such as D. Weedon, E.D. McLeay, and H.L. Boughton were actively engaged in Club activities, and a keen "Ladies Team" had been formed. It is interesting to note from the First Annual Report, which is framed and hanging in the new Clubhouse, that the Club had cash totalling ₤31.14.6. This was considered a sizeable sum as the cost of a reel, complete, in those days was only £12.7.6. With the aid of voluntary labour and donations a club house was built, and opened on November 23rd 1935.
Matters progressed and by 1939 Waihi had a Club it could be proud of. The war years were difficult and it was not until 1949 that the Waihi Surf Life Saving Club was involved in activity never previously equalled. At a meeting on 21st March 1948 it had been resolved to instruct the Waihi Delegate to "do everything in his power to get the New Zealand Surf Championship for 1948/49 allocated to Waihi Beach. The delegate was obviously successful, for in July 1948 an emergency committee was set up to deal with matters concerning the arrangements for the N.Z. Championships. Later in the year this committee was split into further action groups to arrange accommodation, entertainments and transport etc. Late February 1949 saw the culmination of Waihi's effort with the staging of the Nationals. This highly successful Carnival which prompted several congratulatory letters, no doubt stood Waihi in good stead when its application went forward in late 1953 to hold the Nationals again in 1955. The application was successful and records show that over 30 Clubs competed on Waihi Beach, mid March 1955 for top honours in the Surf Life Saving Field.
By the late 1950's it had become obvious that the Club would require a new pavilion in the not too distant future. For this reason a building fund was opened during Oct. 1960. From this date until its completion date in 1971 the Club experienced one of its most difficult and yet strengthening periods. Almost continuous altercation with the Local Authority regarding the sighting of the new pavilion resulted in the Club purchasing the lease of the then existing skating rink and applying to the Council for permission to erect a new pavilion.. The Council finally acquiesced and so the Club achieved its aim in sighting its new pavilion in a position where patrols could be controlled from the patrol tower. The new pavilion when completed and furnished cost in the vicinity of $40,000. Permanent accommodation for 22 members are provided in the new pavilion as is a first aid room for emergency cases. To finance this ambitious building scheme the Club instigated several major fund raising propositions, and its quick raffles are now part of "the beach". The Miss Waihi Beach contest also provides revenue, as well as entertaining seasonal holiday makers.
Another source of income and a major feat was the Club's Swimathon at the College Baths. The team of 10 members (D.E. Harris, P. Brown, J. Hawkes, B.J. Heath, A. Seagar, D.G. Moore, T. Griffith, S. Joseph, M.J. Clark and D. Rhodes) were attempting to swim 100 miles in the 48 hours, finishing 4.00 p.m. Sunday 16th February 1969. The Waihi Lions Club acted as Official Time Keepers and Lap Counters. Heath's Home was used as the Food and Warming up Centre, and many well-wishers provided electric blankets and warm dry towels. On Friday 14th February 1969 at 4.00 p.m. on a chilly afternoon the first swimmer "hit" the water and so started what was to be a stormy and tortuous 48 hours. The weather quickly deteriorated and by late evening rain was falling and a cold wind swept across the pool making it necessary for the swimmers to be coated with grease before entering the water. All night long through blackouts and storm the seven swimmers kept plodding and when the final three members of the team arrived on Saturday morning they were surprised that the attempt had not been abandoned. The weather showed little improvement and by late Saturday night the team was starting to "crack". The four and a half hour sleep periods proved insufficient as much of this time was spent cleaning down, warming up and preparing to "take to the water" again. However, Sunday morning finally dawned and by now it was fairly certain that the goal would be achieved. At approximately 2.10 in the afternoon the 100 miles was reached and by 4.00 p.m. over 106 miles had been covered. A magnificent achievement considering weather and water conditions.
Patrols and Rescues of course are the 'working duties' of all members. Many members spend up to 100 hours per season patrolling the beach in an effort to prevent drownings. During the Clubs' existence hundreds of rescues of varying degrees of seriousness have been effected. Most senior members can recall being involved at some time in a major rescue where undoubtedly a death, by drowning would have occurred. Club members risk their own lives in mountainous seas with strong under-currents to go to the aid of persons in dire difficulties. The frantic fighting and clawing of a drowning person, together with the dead, "putty like" feeling of their skin is something that once experienced, members never forget. I know that all members are thankful when the 'patient' is on the beach and 'heads' of all rescuers counted. There is always the fear that one day a 'support swimmer', that is, one without a belt, will not return.
The Waihi Club is progressing in line with other Clubs in similar positions, facing similar problems. The spirit of its members carries it forward in the same manner as the far sighted foundation members' courage and conviction prompted them to form a club and give years of outstanding service, encouraging their families to do the same. It should be recorded that Mr. Pat McLeay was one such leader and his son Doug, a former N.Z. surf ski champion, was awarded a bronze medal in 1961 for the part he played in a sea rescue after a dinghy mishap. From its inception the Waihi Surf Life Saving Club has had a fatality free record.
OUR CONTRIBUTOR. MR. BEN HEATH, President of the Club, belongs to a family of "Life Savers". His Mother was a Foundation Member and his brother Edwin and late Father shared the interest. He now lives in Paeroa, is Contract Manager for Lee Bros. and is an active member of the Drama Club.