Surf lifesavers celebrate half centenary

Woolacombe Surf Lifesaving Club prepares for its 50th birthday bash.

IN just three years 15 people have drowned on the beaches of the North Devon coast…

This statement was just as shocking in 1962 as it is today and prompted local police and volunteers to set up a surf lifesaving club which this weekend celebrates its 50th anniversary.

On Saturday at the Red Barn in Woolacombe past and present members of Woolacombe Surf Lifesaving Club will gather to mark 50 years of beach rescue, training and competition that has made it such an indelible part of the community.

In the beginning the then North Devon SLSC was set up by volunteer police officers tasked with stopping the high number of drownings which were a common occurrence, particularly at Woolacombe.

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Today beach cover is provided by the highly regarded RNLI Lifeguards, many of whom have come from the ranks of Woolacombe or other local surf lifesaving clubs, whose members still provide voluntary assistance on local beaches.

The club has also gained a strong reputation for competing in regional, national and even world championship surf lifesaving events from the 1960s onwards.

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Alan Kift from Ilfracombe was a civilian volunteer with the club from the early days and recalls the many difficulties they overcame:

“We had to beg, borrow, steal and do all sorts to keep the club going,” he told the Gazette.

In time two paid lifeguards were employed at Woolacombe, augmented by the volunteer patrols, but a difficult job was made harder by certain attitudes from the authorities of the time:

“In the early days some didn’t want the red flag flying on the beach because it would interfere with tourism,” recalled Alan.

“There was a period of westerlies and heavy surf for weeks. Hotels started complaining because the beach was closed and the lifeguards were told if they didn’t take the flag down they would be sacked. But they refused, were sacked on a Friday and on the Saturday two people drowned.”

Thankfully today attitudes have changed and the dedication of lifeguards is more often than not a source of pride for their communities.

The club now has upwards of 150 members from age seven upwards, in the Nippers, Youth, Seniors and Masters categories. Teresa Councell has been with the club for five years and is its current chairman.

“In the 90s the Nipper and Youth side really started to grow. At the moment we have a huge number of Nippers with more coming in all the time,” she said.

“We get a lot of support from the community, our sponsors and beach owners Parkin Estates. For our 50th year we really want to give something back and have linked up with the Care for Kids charity at North Devon District Hospital to try and raise money for them.”

The 50th anniversary event at the Red Barn is on Saturday from 5pm. Any former Woolacombe Surf Lifesaving Club members who would like to attend or who have old photographs or memorabilia are asked to call Alan Kift on 01271 269205.

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