With almost 20 years working as a lifeguard on the Coffs Coast, Greg Hackfath has spent more time on the beach than most. Focus paddled out with the local waterman to get the lowdown on what the job takes …
What is your connection with the Coffs Coast?
My family moved to Sapphire when I was 13 years old (1977) and then moved into Coffs in the same year, when my mum and dad’s house was completed. I attended Orara High until Year 10, before heading to Newcastle to do an apprenticeship as a Metal Fabricator/Welder. I came back to Coffs (WE Smith Engineering) and had a couple of other adventures working in different towns in NSW before settling permanently in Coffs Harbour with my lovely wife, Sharen, and three awesome kids.
To me, Coffs has given me a completely balanced life. I love surfing, spear-fishing, scuba-diving as well as white-water rafting, kayaking, photography and just enjoying the environment and lifestyle we have. We live in a place that caters for all of this within easy travel distance from the city; we really don’t know how lucky we are to live in this area.
How did you become a lifeguard?
I have always loved the surf and the ocean. I remember as a kid wanting to learn how to surf; my old man told me I had to get my Bronze Medallion before I could go to the beach by myself, so I joined Coffs Harbour Surf Life Saving Club. I rowed boats for the club and competed in the odd swim event, but generally just enjoyed going to the beach. I’ll admit that I was more interested in surfing than being a clubby, and my dad once told me, you will never make a living being a bum surfer. The surf club taught me a lot of valuable skills, which must have sunk in. Surf clubs and surfing are both great ways of learning how the waves and ocean work, but as a surfer, I think you learn it experientially. When the opportunity came up for the position in Council, I jumped at it … and well, here I am.
How long have you been a lifeguard?
Nineteen years. I’m in my 28th year with Coffs Harbour City Council and hope to stay here until I can retire – barring any injuries, I should make it ha ha. I’m pretty settled; I have a great team of guys and girls working with me, and we have all worked at improving the Lifeguard Service the entire time. The whole team is pretty proud of what has been achieved.
What position do you hold?
My position is Team Leader; I basically coordinate all the day-to-day operations, strategic direction and planning, equipment requirements and financial responsibilities for the service.
How many lifeguards are there working in the local area?
During peak time (Christmas holidays), Council employs up to 22 lifeguards; 16 of these are casual. Numbers vary throughout the year, but the core team is made up of three temporary (seven-month, surf-season) lifeguards and three full-time lifeguards. During the five months of the off-season, the three permanent staff work a seven-day rolling roster to keep Park Beach open all-year round. I have to mention the assistance from the four surf clubs who conduct volunteer patrols every weekend and public holiday at Sawtell, Park, Woolgoolga and Red Rock beaches; these volunteers conduct their patrols for seven months (surf-season) of the year.
Can you briefly describe a typical day in the life of a lifeguard?
No day is ever the same, as you just never know what may happen. Even on the most benign of days, people can and do get in trouble. On a quiet day last January, two of our lifeguards resuscitated a man at Woolgoolga Caravan Park after he had a heart attack. He is alive today because of their efforts. We have lots of pretty funny incidents (mostly involving clothing, sand and being dumped by a wave), we give away colouring-in books to the kids and provide soft-boards for tourists to use when conditions are good, we speak to people about all manner of topics, educating them about the surf, what the weather will be like tomorrow, next week, next year (really), what attractions there are in Coffs, best restaurants, activities, accommodation.
Generally, I think the local population and visitors appreciate us being there. Quick shout-out to the Ambos and Police, as well as all the emergency services such as SES and Marine Rescue; they make our job much easier. Without these groups, life at the beach would be a lot tougher for us.
What sort of training do you need to be a lifeguard?
Number one is, you need to understand the surf. Don’t expect to get a job as a lifeguard if you come from the bush and have only visited the beach during holidays, even if you are a champion swimmer. In many instances it’s not physicality that we look for: understanding of our environment, knowledge of what effects changes in conditions, good public relations skills, a cool head in an emergency and empathy are many of the qualities we look for. However, there are some physical requirements that need to be addressed. Prospective lifeguards need to pass an 800 m timed pool swim, a timed lifeguard mission consisting of a 600 m ocean swim, 800 m beach run, 600 m ocean board paddle and a further 800 m run. We currently also have a separate 1,600 m timed beach run. After completion of these requirements, they will need to pass first aid scenarios, emergency scenarios, single and multiple person rescue scenarios and training in a number of pre-hospital care courses.
There have been several shark attacks along the East Coast recently; what is your opinion on what should be done?
I haven’t seen a great deal of evidence of increased shark activity in our area. Certainly if you look at statistics, activity up north has taken a significant jump; however, shark activity in South and Western Australia has taken a significant drop. I really don’t support culling; these magnificent animals are part of our environment, we are entering their environment, and let’s face it – they are an apex predator. Evidence still supports that 99% of shark attacks are mistakes where a shark bites once and swims away, because it realises that we are not its normal food source. Unfortunately with our larger sharks, these instances can cause permanent disabilities and, in the worst case, death.
I don’t believe that rotary wing surveillance is good value, as the cost is huge. Fixed wing is cheaper, however, only picks up on what it briefly passes over. The new type of barrier devices show great promise, as they are a hard barrier rather than netting, which shouldn’t be detrimental to turtles, whales, dolphins etc. Nets are indiscriminate killers; they trap any animal that swims into them. Some of the sonar technology has promise as well. In the meantime, surveillance from elevated positions is what we have.
But, let’s put shark attacks into perspective: so far this year, we have had two fatalities from sharks, 18 people injured and nine incidents that didn’t result in any injury. Last year, we had the lowest road toll since records began – 4.87 people per 100,000 (1,155 deaths) – in 2012; 34,091 people were hospitalised after a road accident. In all reality you are 577 times more likely to be killed whilst driving to the beach than being attacked and killed by a shark and 1,894 times more likely to be injured by a vehicle than a shark.
What is the best thing about your job?
We are outside, we can interact with a variety of people from all over the world, we can experience first-hand dolphins, turtles, sharks, fish and whales in their natural environment. When we have a successful rescue, we feel that we have just been the rainbow in someone’s otherwise cloudy day. We can make a difference; there is nothing like saving a life.
I would also like to say to the guys and girls I work with, “thank you” – you all make my job easier. We have some tough issues to deal with at times, but ultimately we have a strong relationship; we always work through problems that arise. I really couldn’t ask for a better team.
Any words of advice for the public now that the weather is warming and we are returning to the beach?
Honestly, respect your own ability, don’t be lazy; if the red and yellow flags are up, swim between them PLEASE, even if they are a 500m walk away. If you must swim in an unpatrolled area, make sure you take the right precautions: always have a flotation device with you, if possible swim near other surfers/body boarders, never swim in creek or river mouths especially on an outgoing tide, educate yourselves on the beach, the waves and the creatures in them and lastly, if you’re not sure on something, ask us. Most of all though, enjoy and look after our environment; we live in a pretty special place.