October 27 - November 2, 2019: Issue 426


The IRB Gun Patrol Of Avalon Beach Surf Life Saving Club 

The Avalon Beach community is invited to celebrate on Saturday November 2nd 2019, the 50th anniversary of the world’s first successful trial of an inflatable rescue boat (IRB) for surf rescues.  

The IRB dramatically improved surf life saving methods, changing the face of surf life saving and has resulted in saving hundreds of thousands of lives nationwide and overseas.

Other game changers in surfing history also took place at our beach. 

One of the first significant public display in Australia of the malibu style surfboard took place here on November 18th, 1956. This started a change in the nature of board riding, beach culture, created a way of life, promoted the development of surf related industries, and has provided many hundreds of thousands of Australians with natural pleasure.

These significant historic developments involved your local surf club, Avalon Beach SLSC, and the Avalon Beach community. They came to result in profound changes in surf lifesaving, surfing and beach culture in Australia.

Commemorating and celebrating these events will take place on Saturday 2 November 2019 at the park adjacent to the surf club.  Times are approximate: 

  • 2 – 3:30 pm Demonstration rescues by IRBs
  • Between 3:30 and 4pm Official unveiling of two plaques set on sandstone blocks, one to honour the Birthplace of the IRB 1969 – Avalon Beach and another for Australian Malibu Surfing 1956 – Avalon Beach

After the unveiling of the plaques, the community is invited to join together in the Bangalley Lounge of the surf club for refreshments.

A historical exhibition by Geoff Searl OAM will be on display in the main hall of the club. 

The two plaques are long sought community projects at the initiative of the surf club, Avalon Preservation Trust, Avalon Beach Historical Society, and in the case of the malibu plaque also with the support of the North Avalon Surfriders Association and individual local boardriders.

Some more background on the IRB Development:

Birthplace of the IRB 1969

The world’s first successful trial of an inflatable rescue boat (IRB) for surf rescues took place here at Avalon Beach on November 2nd, 1969. It was carried out by Warren Mitchell (now OAM) and his brother, Don, both members (later Life Members) of Avalon Beach Surf Life Saving Club (ABSLSC). 

A month later the first IRB surf rescue took place here when Warren and John Fuller rescued eight children caught in a rip. Warren pioneered the development and use of inflatable boats for surf rescues right here at Avalon Beach. 

“Given the great air of uncertainty that had surrounded the concept, I was just a little happy to find the bloody thing worked! We worked against great odds. It was a team effort by Avalon Beach Surf Life Saving Club.” - Warren Mitchell OAM.

He faced an uphill battle against conservative thinking and had to address numerous concerns (for example fears about propellers being amongst swimmers - a propeller guard was developed) and many specific use improvements resulted from his persistence. He knew that the IRB vastly improved surf rescue methods.

After a lot of hard work by Warren, Avalon Beach SLSC members and other supporters, IRBs proved themselves faster, more efficient and safer than the traditional belt, line and reel, and oared surfboats, and eventually replaced these earlier rescue methods. 

He demonstrated the use of the IRB in comparison with a belt swimmer and an oared surfboat at surf carnivals. On every occasion the IRB rescued the patient and was back on the beach before the other rescue methods had even reached their patients.

Warren’s work in developing his concept revolutionised surf lifesaving methods in Australia and overseas. He paved the way for the introduction of new technologies such as jetskis and drones, making their acceptance pathways a lot easier. Interestingly, the pioneer of the use of jetskis for surf rescues, big wave surfer and Hawaiian lifeguard, Brian Keaulana visited Avalon Beach and the surf club and said he had experienced similar resistance to the use of jetskis for surf rescue in Hawaii, as Warren did with the IRB.

The various surf rescue methods in use today - rescue boards (and surfboards), swimmers with rescue tubes, IRBs, jetskis etc. complement one another and are used in different rescue situations. Besides its use in carrying out routine rescues, the IRB is SLSA’s rescue workhorse or ute and is commonly used in dangerous rescues and mass rescues in particular.

More than 200,000 people rescued by SLSA IRBs around Australia, and many more in some 40 other countries which acknowledge that the use of IRBs for surf rescue started at Avalon Beach SLSC, can thank Warren for persevering with his original idea. 

Warren has been awarded an SLSA Innovation Award, Order of Australia Medal, and a book “Breakthrough: The Story of the Inflatable Rescue Boat” by E Wake -Walker (2007) has been written about his outstanding contribution to surf life saving.

This week a wonderful insight, via the pen of Avalon Beach SLSC Life Member Roger Sayers into current IRB operations at Avalon Beach SLSC, which Pittwater Online first ran in late December 2014.

That original IRB Trial at Avalon Beach - photo courtesy ABSLSC

The Gun Patrol Of Avalon Beach Surf Life Saving Club!

A Short History

 The Gun Patrol of Avalon Beach Surf Life Saving Club!

A Short History

Ahh! The good old days when men were men and beach-goers felt secure in their surfing pursuits and 'dodgy Roger' took the IRB to sea with Searly as his crew! (while Wazza took care of the beach!?) - March 2002!

Must be about 2002 or 2003 by the look of when I saved it - The Gun Patrol! Photo by Waz.

Lovely photo by Waz. Sunday morning patrol 21/10/2007 Donovan with Rog. Driving.

Whale of a Tale

A Humpback whale and calf came into Avalon Beach one Sunday morning, while Roger Sayers and Donovan Macintosh were on patrol in the IRB as water safety for the weekly surf swim, which had just finished.

Mother whale was huge and the calf was two to three times the boat length (4m).

Staying the required distance away from them, they enjoyed the whales’ company while they enjoyed Sydney's cooler water (19) after Queensland, on their way down the coast to the Antarctic for Summer.

There had been other whales go past the headland since patrol started earlier in the day, but these two came right into the bay - maybe for a short break, to feed the calf, or just being curious. They came in toward the beach and cruised just outside the breakers, slowly making their way around the bay for maybe half an hour to the delight of the crowd on the beach and surfers in the water before heading South. Still together! 2008 – 

The Gun Patrol. Waz’s camera but there’s Waz in the photo! How does he do it!?

A quiet morning on patrol

Sunday of the Aussie Day long weekend 2008 – Hot, sunny, biggish surf, lots of visitors on the beach, about 50 boardriders crowded together at North Av – many non-locals. Flags just north of the rocks in the middle. 

AR 4 on patrol – Al Crosky, Mark Heffernan, Kevin Veale, Bruce Muston, Geoff Searl,

Bill Wall subbing for Waz, and me.

Billie and I go out in the duck for Nippers water safety. Not much fuel in the tank but it’ll do for the time being. We’re not out there long, as the water event course is shortened considerably because of the heavy surf.

Billie and I go out again for the 11 o’clock swim, ask a couple of non-local boardriders to stop drifting into the flags, and quickly retrieve the swim buoy which has washed inside the break – good practice for rescues. It’s lost its anchor, so Billie offers to be a sea anchor and dives out with the buoy – about a thousand metres from shore, I think was Tim’s request. Bill throws it further out to sea as Col Campbell approaches.

A first time swimmer rounds the buoy and asks us to watch him on the way back in, as he’s a bit tired. Bill suggests he could jump out again and swim in with him (what’s with this compulsion to jump out of the boat??) – “No. Al’s swimming beside him. We’ll watch from here. You stay in case I need a crewman.”

Then… as Pete Akehurst says… it all happens when you least expect it… Kev’s on the radio: “Can you check on those swimmers in the Nth Av rip”… 

We can’t see them – too many boardriders between us and the rip. We head round - “There..” says Bill, pointing to a group of people trying to swim against the rip, getting nowhere. Two who’ve seen us, now have their arms in the air.

The rip is running out strongly, sets are coming in, water moving everywhere, boardriders catching waves, paddling back out - and a bunch of swimmers who are keen, to say the least, to get into the boat.

Now kids… I want you to practice this when there’s no one around to run over… Boat, driver and crew work as one, like a well oiled machine (Billie likes that kind of talk)…

Driving in against the rip rather than running out with it, you have better control, as the swimmers can drift up to you. Point out to the swimmers where you want to them to stay for the pick up…not swim to the boat. Time your turn allowing for the runout and keep the bow pointed out to sea …quickly grab arms, legs, anything, keeping one hand on the throttle ready to accelerate, and one eye on the sets – good fun. Pile bodies into boat – one male about 50 completely stuffed, one girl late twenties puffing, one male about 30something tired..

“Is that everyone?? I thought there were more of you?” Completely Stuffed (CS) raises head to look over pontoon – points back to man with his arm in the air – 

“He came out to get me.. It seemed so calm near the shore.. and the next thing we were out here.”

Hmm.. quick decision time – the boat is already chockers with 3 adult passengers and 2 crew… 

Conditions are definitely not conducive (some might even say risky) for another pick up with that load… Signal to swimmer # 4 you’ll be back in a jiff.

We drive out beyond the break to slack water in the lee of the headland: “We’ll have to put you back in the water for a bit”. CS looks concerned and is clearly not up to it – “Not you. You can stay here.” 

30something is fine with the idea; Bikini Girl seems hesitant – “Is that OK with you?” .. “If it’s not OK, we can do the rescue with you in the boat - you’re not too heavy”. She rolls out (?!). Billie tosses them the swim buoy and the rescue tube for floatation.

We return in a jiff to swimmer # 4, who by now is looking as tired as CS – “Keep an eye on the sets, Rog.”, says Bill. What’s he think I’m doing ?? Knitting???...

Swimmer # 4 is hauled into the boat like a slippery Tuna and we’re outta there… Driving six in the boat through the break today is not an option – no speed, no manoeuvrability. Ask 30something and Bikini Girl: “You OK??” They signal they’re OK and look like they’re enjoying it. “We’ll be back for you shortly…”

Driving parallel to the beach toward the flag area, judging the sets for the run in though the break..and… the motor stops!... “ Oh Goodness!” (or something similar), “We’re out of fuel.”… 

Instant thoughts: 1. Paddling the boat in through that break with CS and #4 is going to be interesting…2. Glad that didn’t happen a couple of minutes ago… “Hang on”, says Bill in the bow. He asks CS to move his butt. “Pump the fuel line now Rog.” he says. Motor starts… purrs. “He’s been sitting on the line”. 

We head in, signalling the beach. Two yellow patrol shirts clear an area for us and we gently run up the beach… 

CS and #4: “Thanks Fellas”… 

Us: “No worries.”

We turn the boat round straight away and head back out, just as a series of largish waves start to break – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… We’re both keenly looking out the back: “How many more waves are there in this set!!??” 

Good thing we’re not in a hurry. A couple more waves and we’re out – back to 30something and Bikini Girl, who by now have company… Duncan Herbert, off duty, has paddled out on his board to stay with them… “Thanks Dunc”…We pick them up. 

30something: “You’ve done all this before haven’t you.”… 

“Once or twice”…

Back on the beach we see Al walking back from Nth Av - “Kevin asked me to go out on the rescue board to get another swimmer (#5) – I was stuffed after the swim.. Now I’m Completely Stuffed.”

No… We had him in the boat.

This rescue was a team effort: Eagle Eye Kevin Veale, who 1. spotted the swimmers in trouble, 2. had made sure there was a radio in the IRB (without both of those, the visiting swim team could still be swimming on such a crowded busy day); Al who went out on the rescue board despite being tired; the rest of the patrol who looked after the swimmers in the flags and were vigilant while all this was going on… off duty Dunc who kept 30something and Bikini Girl company while we were busy dropping off CS and #4… and ‘Happy Grandpas’ Bill and me (I became a Grandpa two days after ).

Pete – sorry, we were just too busy for our patrol inspection… 

The point of this fascinating story - besides hopefully passing on some tips from our experience and some reminder lessons we can all learn from as drivers, crews and club members (sort of like a training film in words??) – is that rescues aren’t just thanks to the patrol on the day. 

They aren’t possible without well maintained equipment and skilled lifesavers in the club.

So – thanks also to all the team who organise and maintain our IRBs and motors, our Polaris, radios, first aid, oxy vivas, etc, our fundraisers and our sponsors, our training instructors and those who keep us fit with swims, carnivals, IRB racing etc…our administrators who make sure the club keeps ticking over… and of course Warren Mitchell OAM for dreaming up the idea to use inflatable boats for surf rescues.

Roger Sayers 

Life Member Publicity Officer 


Roger in IRB photo by Geoff Searl summer 2010-2011

A lovely one by Wazza ... in our new jackets 

Where's Al? (Crosky)

Gun Patrol 2017

26 December 2017 - Patrol 5 Boxing Day afternoon team effort rescue at 5.30pm (just before sign off)

Jenny Brennen radioed the patrol that a swimmer was in trouble in the North Avalon rip.

Her husband Pete went out on the rescue board and took over from local boardrider Mark Rhodes who by then was supporting the swimmer on his Malibu board.

Richard Cole and Steve Zinger went out in the IRB and picked the swimmer up and brought him back to shore.

'Leif' from Sweden was very grateful.  He said “It was scary”. He didn't know that he should have been swimming between the red and yellow flags, and “couldn't understand why the current was there”.

Shortly afterwards three people who'd just arrived at the beach asked Pete and I was it “ok to swim just here”...right where the Warning sign was, and where Leif had entered the water. We said “No” and explained why.

There are lots of visitors to Avalon Beach who aren't familiar with the surf and rips. Clear indications...eg dress, obvious ethnic characteristics. Swimming breaststroke in a rip is a sure sign the person is from Europe eg Scandinavian countries, Germany, etc - traditionally taught to swim using breaststroke rather than freestyle, not familiar with the surf. They will not be able to get themselves out of trouble in a strong rip.

The Club puts warning signs near the rips, does roving patrols, and Patrol Members speak to people one on one.

A rescue might not necessarily be a big deal to people familiar with the surf, but it is for the person who was rescued.

Gun Patrol 2018

Gun Patrol 2019

Article By Roger Sayers,  2014.  Photos Courtesy Geoff Searl and Warren Young OAM.