May 13, 2017
This (R&R) Life: Part II
Our fabulous and famous R&R coaches, Harry Nightingale and Mick Cooksley, were sharp-eyed and unrelenting in forcing us to do everything in the same way and at the same speed. We spent many, many hours practicing it all — before and after school or work, fair weather or foul. Another ‘no-no’ was giggling and whispering, which we rarely did and only when we thought we could get away with it – never in big championship events. It sounds easy not to do, but it isn’t when you’re simulating mouth-to-mouth resuscitation only inches away from your mate’s face and you had possibly got up to all sorts of shenanigans the night before at the Bondi Hotel and elsewhere. Plus, laughing is infectious and, like infections, the giggle can spread rapidly. A ‘lash of the tongue’ at training from Harry or Mick cured the problem faster than penicillin.
When we had marched on to the arena we had to do a ‘left wheel’ up to our selected ‘alley’. This is not an easy manoeuvre when you’re all of different heights and during a ‘wheel’ the outside men must take larger strides and the inner men smaller ones, again all in the dreaded shifting sand – plus keep the reel dead level.
During the event, the judges moved all around you looking for the slightest ‘mishap’ – and there were plenty that could be made: arm swings at different heights, the slightest bit ‘out of step’ in the march, knuckles not facing the same way along the ‘seam’ of our imaginary ‘trousers’, hands held the wrong way in the ‘at ease’ position, etc., etc. There were many ways to lose a point or a fraction of a point. I’m sure we can all still hear Harry or Mick dressing us down for some cock-up, with a “you’ll lose point two (0.2 of a point) for that!”.
When we had got to our spot, we all squatted at the same time and speed, lowering the reel while keeping it absolutely steady and level. It doesn’t sound that tricky but when you are all of different heights and you’re in sand, plenty of things can go wrong. After that we did an elaborate march to our individual positions and ‘about turned’ so that we were lined up facing the water. Sometimes we did it like the horses at the famous El Caballo Blanco horse dancing show in Sydney’s northwestern suburbs – all in perfect step and time. Sometimes you would have thought we had all had a few swigs of Bundaberg Rum before the event started and, on occasion, two of us tried to step into the one slot.
When we selected our roles by drawing a marble from a bag held by a judge in front of us, we found out who the patient and beltman would be. Obviously, you wanted your better swimmers in those spots, especially if the waves were pumping, because you lost points based on the number of seconds your beltman reached his patient after the first beltman got there — but the marble draw was ‘pot luck’.
I think it is fair to say that our Bondi junior and senior R&R teams in those years were fairly unique because we had an inordinate number of short-sighted members – and I mean really short-sighted. These included my brother Brook and myself, Channel king Cyril Baldock and Master Financier Martin Greenberg. Our glasses were made from the proverbial ‘beer bottle bottoms’ (no such thing as SpecSavers in those days) and anything more than 10 metres away from us was distinctly blurry.
The first part of the event involved the newly selected patient swimming out to the buoys flat-chat, mounting the buoy and raising his arm in the air as high as possible. When we saw the arm shoot up, the remaining five of us had to snap from ‘at ease’ to ‘attention’ in perfect unison and charge to our selected spots for the belt swim part of the event. Now, this was hard enough to accomplish if you could see what was going on through the sunlight and the reflection from broken and unbroken waves. But, for the ‘Guide Dog’ members of our Bondi team, this was a nightmare. There was so much squinting going on in our team it is a surprise that we didn’t lose points for eye muscle movement. We were all obviously wearing prescription sunglasses but this didn’t help that much. To this day, I still can’t really say how we came to ‘attention’ together (and plenty times we didn’t) but I think the ‘sighted’ members of the team must have released small amounts of electrical energy which passed invisibly down the line to those of us with defective eyeballs.
We would then follow the charging beltman down towards the water, carrying the line in one hand and prancing in unison like the previously mentioned circus show ponies. We would pay out the line as fast as we could, but still always ‘mirror-imaging’ the other members – line raised up and down onto our head uniformly, then paid out with fingers dead-set level and horizontal to the ground. Every movement the same as the other two members on the line. Then basically the reverse would happen and we would change our stance and begin the haul-in – again all at the same time with precisely the same movements as everyone else. All the while the judges were hovering around you to detect one of those ‘0.2’ deductions.
When the patient and beltman had reached waist-deep water we would again ‘show pony’ it through the water to them and perform some elaborate manoeuvres that resulted in the patient ending up on our shoulders, face down, with the beltman holding his head up so that it didn’t sag and close off his airway. As I said, it was a mock rescue. We marched up the beach with the patient and again, with movements probably copied from Rudolf Nureyev and the Russian State Ballet, got him on the ground ready for (simulated) resuscitation. This was a prime opportunity for ‘losing it’, whispering some smart-arse remark about last night’s mischief and getting into a giggling fit — fortunately, these outbreaks were few and far between.
The Bondi Blogger, Alan Scott, reminds me every time I see him, and to my eternal shame, that at one Australian Championships, the resuscitator (me) failed to peel back the patient’s lip during the simulated mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and we lost points that cost us a gold medal. Ever since, I have denied that I was even at the event and an incompetent impersonator had taken my spot for the day. Anyway, after performing the resuscitation and then doing more ‘mirror image’ movements back into our places at the start of the event, we squatted down to pick up the reel, marched down the beach and ‘right wheeled’ off the arena.
As I said at the start, it was an unusual event to look at if you didn’t know what was going on and, no doubt, many an overseas tourist must have wondered what was happening. It was probably a bit like watching the synchronised swimming events at the Olympics: you don’t really know what’s going on and how hard it is to do, if you haven’t done it yourself. But it could put paid to one of the longest held apocryphal stories in the Australian surf lifesaving club movement – that, at the start of every season, they would line all the club members up against a wall at the back of the club and throw bricks at them. And that the ones who didn’t duck and get out of the way became the boaties for the year and for ever more.
When you see how ‘strange’ the R&R event is – men in funny full-length costumes, marching like show ponies on sand, lifesavers seemingly kissing each other on the beach – I think it is fair to say that the boaties knew what they were doing and might have selected the smarter vocation. ** — Leigh Emery
** Once or twice, we R&R types got in a surfboat and somehow rowed it out to sea and tried to catch a wave back to shore. We were hopeless, we nearly decapitated a few hapless swimmers and then realised that cracking a really big wave in this huge wooden boat, with massive oars flying everywhere and a (usually demented) sweep howling with laughter at the back of the boat was, perhaps, probably not the wisest of choices. Talk about a death wish. Maybe we were smarter dodging those bricks and sticking to the sand, but I’m not entirely sure. Who knows – the jury is still out.