The Surf Club

By Wendy Carlisle and Clay Hichens

Updated May 9, 2013 11:03:00

The Surf Club

Australian surf life saver. Photo by Louie Eroglu, Four Corners.

THE SURF CLUB Monday 6 May 2013

The surf life saving movement is Australia's biggest volunteer organisation and it saves thousands of lives each year. It represents values of service and sacrifice. But right now Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) is at a crossroads.

Next week Four Corners reveals new information relating to the death of a competitor in the national titles in 2012. The program also exposes the confusion inside the organisation over the use of safety equipment and explains the reasons for a mass walkout by directors in the organisation's powerful fundraising arm.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with the organisation at the beach level. What is wrong is the people that manage that, and at a national level (they) need to consider change." Former Director

Reporter Wendy Carlisle speaks to two former Board members who took a decision to stand down from the Australian Surf Life Saving Foundation. They tell her that SLSA is a boys club, lacking transparency and that it is run in a way that would not be tolerated in other organisations.

Their views are backed by others inside the movement. As one experienced lifesaver told the program, he believes SLSA is top heavy with management and that too little of the money raised by the national body makes its way down to the grass roots:

"If anyone knew what was going on they would go down to their local club and donate money straight to the club."

In autumn 2012, the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships were held at Kurrawa Beach on Queensland's Gold Coast. On the third day of competition 14-year-old Matthew Barclay disappeared while competing in large surf. Matthew became the third competitor at a national title to die in 17 years. SLSA refuses to discuss the circumstances surrounding the tragedy while it is still with the coroner.

Four Corners reveals information that implies organisers had been warned by people on the beach, including parents and other officials at the carnival, that conditions were dangerous and that controlling officials should consider moving the event.

For the past 16 years, SLSA has indicated that it is committed to the testing and possible introduction of helmets and safety flotation vests for use in competition. Last month, SLSA set up a demonstration of safety equipment for the media. During the course of the demonstration, top lifesavers explained why the equipment was not appropriate. In turn, a spokesperson said she could not find anybody who would endorse the use of the equipment. At the same time, Four Corners discovered that in Western Australia one major club has made wearing helmets and vests mandatory in dangerous surf. When surfboat crews gathered for a recent championship in that state, many competitors wore safety equipment.

"The Surf Club", reported by Wendy Carlisle and presented by Kerry O'Brien, goes to air on Monday 6th May at 8.30pm on ABC1. It is replayed on Tuesday 7th May at 11.35pm. It can also be seen on ABC News 24 on Saturday at 8.00pm, ABC iview and at


THE SURF CLUB Monday 6 May 2013

(Various shots of tumultuous waves)

KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Three young athletes lost at the national titles.

LIFE SAVING OFFICIAL: Guys we need that area cleared we want all of those swimmers out of there!

MICHAEL GATENBY: My family had no idea, none what so ever that my brother faced death when he went out in the boat that day.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Five directors in a board room walk out.

DEBORAH THOMAS, FORMER DIRECTOR, SLS FOUNDATION: We felt that the structure was ineffective.

NEIL BALNAVES, FORMER DIRECTOR, SLS FOUNDATION: There's a simple rule here, full transparency, this is, this is no secret little club.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The deep troubles within Surf Life Saving Australia. Welcome to Four Corners. At its core, Surf Life Saving is about protecting lives in the surf, and at its most dramatic about rescuing people who are staring death in the face. Over many decades it has performed that service very well, the tragic irony about this most iconic voluntary bodies according to its many critics backed by powerful argument, is that it has failed to apply that same culture to protecting its own members. This criticism has been brewing for 17 years after the arguable avoidable death of a participant in the national surf titles at a Queensland beach. It grew stronger after a second death at the national titled three years ago, and then a third last year. Yet the same basic forms of protection raised again, and again by expert, even within the organisation itself are still being argued over. There's another fundamental issue dog in the management of what is essentially a charity funded annually by millions of dollars from government and the broad Australian community. The critics including directors of its funding arm, are concerned about what they say is seriously flawed governance, including a lack of transparency.

Tonight, Four Corners presents new revelations on both fronts. The lives lost in competition and financial management. The reporter is Wendy Carlisle.

(Shots of surf life savers training)

WENDY CARLISLE, REPORTER: It's a proud tradition, the embodiment of Australia's egalitarian culture, young men and women confronting the power of the surf, training to save lives. For more than a century surf life savers have patrolled the nation's beaches, each year they perform thousands of rescues.

(Archive footage of life savers marching to a brass band on the beach)

COMMENTATOR: These are the men of today, each is a magnificent type of young Australian manhood, for these are the sons of the ANZACs and the breed holds good.

(Life savers march to bag pipers)

WENDY CARLISLE: The iconic image of the bronzed life saver has helped to build a powerful charity brand, generating more than $36 million in revenue last year, mostly from corporate sponsorship, donations and taxpayer support. But behind the scenes, Surf Life Saving is an institution at the crossroads, haunted by the deaths of three young competitors at its premier annual event. And its national administration is in turmoil following a mass walkout by five out of six independent directors.

NEIL BALNAVES: There is absolutely nothing wrong with the organisation at the beach level. What is wrong is the people that manage that and, and at a national level need to consider change and an open mind and full transparency.

WENDY CARLISLE: Neil Balnaves is a former executive chairman of television production giant Southern Star. He's now one of the nation's leading philanthropists, donating more than $2 million a year to the arts and charities including Surf Life Saving. Neil Balnaves was one of a team of high-powered business figures recruited as independent directors to Surf Life Saving's fund raising foundation in 2010. He resigned two years later, frustrated at the charity's response to a damming independent review which recommended a major overhaul of the national administration.

NEIL BALNAVES: We went through that process of trying to create change and found a lot of resistance.

DEBORAH THOMAS: We felt that the structure was ineffective. We also were concerned that there was duplication within the organisation and that we needed to look at a better administrative ah structure for SLSA and ah, we also wanted them to look at the structure of the executive management.

WENDY CARLISLE (to Deborah Thomas): What were the discussions in...

WENDY CARLISLE: Another independent director, former Women's Weekly editor Deborah Thomas, shared Balnaves' concerns. Late last year, in the midst of the review, Surf Life Saving reappointment chief executive Brett Williamson on a new contract. That proved to be the breaking point.

DEBORAH THOMAS: We felt that um, the change wasn't happening fast enough. And I had concerns about the fact that the CEO had been rehired whilst we were reviewing the structure of the organisation. And that really precipitated the final straw and there was a breakdown where I don't think that we could have worked together.

WENDY CARLISLE: Neil Balnaves and Deborah Thomas resigned from the foundation, along with Greater Union boss Alan Rydge, John Kirby of Village Roadshow and Jeremy Charlston of legal firm Clayton Utz. Neil Balnaves is calling for Surf Life Saving to release the highly critical independent review.

NEIL BALNAVES: I challenge, I really challenge them to release that report. There's a simple rule here, full transparency. This is, this is no secret little club. I mean I'm a director of public companies and have been for a lot of my life. You could not get away with this.

WENDY CARLISLE: Four Corners has obtained a copy of the Deloitte review, which has not been publicly released. It concluded there was an inherent conflict of interest on the board of Surf Lifesaving Australia, because most of the directors were drawn from within the organisation's own ranks. It described senior management as "ineffective". And without a radical restructure there was a real and immediate risk to surf lifesaving's fundraising efforts.

WENDY CARLISLE (to Greg Nance): Were you brought in after the crisis because the current management was unable to deal with the crisis?

GREG NANCE, ACTING CEO, SLSA: I'd have to say partially you could draw that conclusion, yes um...

WENDY CARLISLE (to Greg Nance): Do you draw that conclusion?


WENDY CARLISLE: In February, just weeks after news of the foundation board walkout went public, Surf Life Saving's CEO Brett Williamson suddenly took extended leave. In his place former CEO Greg Nance was brought in.

WENDY CARLISLE (to Greg Nance): Why is it though that the independent directors walked out? What was the reason?

GREG NANCE: I don't know. I ah I read, what I read ah for public consumption just like everyone else, ah I'd heard things but I'm not going to comment on those things. I wasn't present.

WENDY CARLISLE (to Greg Nance): You see the independent directors walked because they lost confidence in surf lifesaving's commitment to the reform so if you like it was a bit of shock and awe. They had to walk out the door to bring attention...


WENDY CARLISLE (to Greg Nance): to the issue.


WENDY CARLISLE (to Greg Nance): Would you agree with that?

GREG NANCE: I would, yeah.

ANNOUNCER: We took that one step further this year...

WENDY CARLISLE: Even as the Deloitte report remains under wraps, Greg Nance says it's the blueprint for an ambitious change agenda that will be unveiled within weeks.

GREG NANCE: The SLSA is committed to the changes of the Deloitte Review. The forty recommendations will be implemented.

WENDY CARLISLE: Will you release the report in full?

GREG NANCE: Absolutely. Absolutely unexpurgated.

WENDY CARLISLE: It's not just former directors who are publicly critical of Surf Life Saving's national administration.

CRAIG RIDDINGTON, SEA AUSTRALIA: If anyone knew what was going on they would go down to their local club and donate money straight to the club, 'cause they'd know that would go into vital rescue equipment and services.

WENDY CARLISLE: These days Craig Riddington teaches surf safety to thousands of school children each year. Back in the 1980s he was one of the biggest names in the sport, with a host of national and world iron man and surf titles to his credit. As a life member of his local club, he sees a top heavy bureaucracy with little money hitting the beach.

CRAIG RIDDINGTON: When you look at the 37 million you could probably guarantee that a lot of that goes into the payrolls, and then you see the beach is not being serviced, um the clubs are paying for everything they have, then there's something seriously, seriously wrong.

GREG NANCE: Seventy cents in every dollar raised ah through our foundation ah is distributed through SLSA down to our states and the states provide a, provide a range of services ah for the members and for the public at large. Helicopters, jet rescue boats, training and education services, some of those funds do eventually get down into the, into the clubs.

WENDY CARLISLE: During the past decade the financial fortunes of one of the biggest state bodies were bright indeed. Surf New South Wales surged from less than a million dollars in the bank to more than 12 million. But now it's facing questions about its investment activities. The 2006 annual report shows Surf New South Wales sank nearly half a million dollars into property developments controlled by its then president Brett Harrod, in the form of unsecured loans and investments.

SUE NEWBERRY, PROFESSOR AT SYDNEY UNIVERSITY: The fact is that, that these seem to be the only investments that were made by the organisation. They were highly speculative, ah a property development, and they were made in organisations which Mister Harrod was a director.

WENDY CARLISLE (to Sue Newberry): I dunno what an ordinary member would make of this, I mean...

WENDY CARLISLE: Four Corners sought expert analysis from Sue Newberry, professor of accountancy at Sydney University, who followed the money trail through the annual reports. Brett Harrod did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this program, but he denied any conflict of interest during a 2007 newspaper interview, stating that he absented himself from board meetings where the investments were discussed.

SUE NEWBERRY: It looks to me that there is a conflict of interest. Even if he feels that there is no conflict of interest, he does need to understand how the public might perceive it.

WENDY CARLISLE: In July 2007 Brett Harrod's company Harcorp Property Group, went into liquidation. But the Surf New South Wales annual report that year made no mention of this. It was signed off by Brett Harrod.

SUE NEWBERRY: The annual reports relate to the 30th of June 2007, um, and they are not signed off until October 2007. I would expect, ah, a disclosure to say that these investments did appear now to be in trouble and that's not there.

WENDY CARLISLE: In its 2008 report Surf New South Wales wrote the entire investment off. By this time Brett Harrod had been replaced as president.

SUE NEWBERRY: And this is showing the write-off of the investment here the impairment.


SUE NEWBERRY: Yes, and when you look at the balance sheet, you can see that last year that's the amount that was held or reported, and this year it's been reduced to zero, and it's been reduced by Brett.

WENDY CARLISLE: The 2011 report showed Surf NSW clawed back just over $200,000, making a total loss of more than $270,000. That same year Brett Harrod was appointed as a senior manager with Surf Life Saving Australia. The independent directors began asking questions.

WENDY CARLISLE: And what kind of questions was the foundation asking about the appointment of Brett Harrod?

NEIL BALNAVES: Well, eh the questions we were we were asking is given, given, given the issues that had been before, was it appropriate and we received the very strong assurances it was appropriate.

WENDY CARLISLE: Acting national CEO Greg Nance maintains the Harcorp investments were all above board.

GREG NANCE: I'm pretty comfortable that they've um, they've acted in accordance with um the governance practices that are required. The major thing I was concerned about was making sure that the investments there was no loss of money to the organisation.

WENDY CARLISLE: There was a loss of $200,000.

GREG NANCE: Yeah I, I don't believe that's correct from what the information I've got from Surf New South Wales and again you'd have to ask them.

WENDY CARLISLE: Well you see we would like to ask them but they are declining to speak to us.

GREG NANCE: Oh well.

WENDY CARLISLE: Surf Life Saving isn't just facing questions about the way it manages money, but also the way it manages safety. Each year thousands of members make their pilgrimage to a single beach, the venue for the national titles. But this year Surf Life Saving has been forced to move its biggest event to a new location.

ANNOUNCER: Dear lord we pray and for your grace and comfort today, as we join together to honour and remember our fellow life savers who lost their lives while competing as they honed their skill for the dangerous task, saving lives in the surf.

WENDY CARLISLE: For the first time, a memorial service was held for three young men who died during previous championships at another nearby beach.

ANNOUNCER: We especially ask that you continue to comfort and strengthen our families represented here today, these mums and dads who carry the ache of losing a son.

WENDY CARLISLE: Why were the championships moved from Kurrawa to North Kirra?

GREG NANCE: Safety reasons, safety concerns with Kurrawa, Kurrawa Beach.

WENDY CARLISLE: Kurrawa beach in the heart of the Gold Coast is one of the few in the country big enough to host the national championships, but it hasn't been a universally popular venue.

CRAIG SMITH-GANDER, PRESIDENT, NORTH COTTESLOE SLSC: On a small day Kurrawa's a lovely beach. But once you get a wave at Kurrawa it becomes dangerous, it becomes dangerous because there's a big gutter.

WENDY CARLISLE: When Kurrawa hosted the 1996 national titles Cyclone Beti was lashing the Gold Coast with five metre swells.

(Footage from Nine Network, 1996)

ANNOUNCER: And I tell you, yesterday the hospital honestly rang up the beach and said "no more!" call it off...

WENDY CARLISLE: Sixteen competitors had to be taken to hospital with suspected fractures and other injuries. Among the injured were champion Ironwomen Reen Corbett and Samantha O'Brien. Both had to be rescued from the surf.

(Interview from A Current Affair, 1996)

SAMANTHA O'BRIEN: They told us we had to get on out there and this has happened so I am not very happy at all. Reen Corbett's out she hurt her ribs in the heats that should have been enough to, to tell them you know the surf was too dangerous for the girls to go out in, but that didn't stop them telling us to get out there.

(Footage from Nine Network, 1996)

WENDY CARLISLE: On the last day of the championships, in the under 18 surfboat final, there was a collision between the McMasters Beach and Kurrawa boats. It was two or three minutes before anyone realised a rower was missing.

DARYL EASTLAKE: Unfortunately we've lost a competitor in one of the events that was run some half an hour ago. Every helicopter, every rubber boat, everything that's floating is out there looking.

WENDY CARLISLE: It took three days to recover the body of 15 year old Robert Gatenby. He was found 12 kilometres away.

MICHAEL GATENBY: My family had no idea, none whatsoever that my brother faced death when he went out in the boat that day. We had no idea that it was an extreme sport likely to result in death.

WENDY CARLISLE: Almost 20 years on, Robert Gatenby's brother Michael, still carries the regret that his family accepted the reassurances of the surf live saving hierarchy. Surf Life Saving announced an internal safety review after his brother's death. It found that the officials running the event were not to blame for the tragedy.

MICHAEL GATENBY: You can't have Surf Life Saving investigating Surf Life Saving and have a credible outcome. In retrospect we, we should have had a, at least a coronial inquiry.

WENDY CARLISLE: Surf Life Saving's own inquiry recommended that it investigate the use of helmets and flotation vests to protect competitors knocked unconscious in the surf, with no apparent result.

MICHAEL GATENBY: we believed that Surf Life Saving was going to learn from their mistakes and we believed that, that they were going to genuinely do something to make sure this tragedy never happened again and they didn't.

(Footage of waves wiping out competitors - Seven Network, 2010)

WENDY CARLISLE: Fourteen years later, when Kurrawa hosted the 2010 championships, competitors were once again facing an unforgiving surf with no protective gear. Cyclone Ului, hundreds of kilometres out in the Pacific, was hammering the coast with swells up to four metres.

GRANT BALDOCK, GENERAL MANAGER SURF SPORTS, SLSA (2010): We need to understand that the safety of our members paramount, and our athletes, and we'll continue to monitor the situation. We are monitoring conditions and monitoring the athletes hourly at the moment, prior to making any decisions moving forward from today onwards.

'MIDGET' FARRELLY: There was an incredible ah moment where ah, the Bulli boat ran over the top of the Northcliffe boat and put a, put the rowers into the first aid tent. And one look at the ocean you knew that there were too many things against you.

(Archive footage of Midget Farrelly surfing as a young boy, 1964)

WENDY CARLISLE: Back in 1964, Midget Farrelly became a household name as the first world surfing champion. In 2010 he was a sweep in the back of a surfboat.

'MIDGET' FARRELLY: Numerous requests were made. "We don't feel this is safe, we don't feel the area's good, ah we can see the conditions are gonna worsen." And the answer kept coming back down, "no we're going on, no we're not moving." I thought, "Ooh, this is not right. Ah, ah nobody's looking after us."

WENDY CARLISLE: The rowers took an extraordinary step...

ANNOUNCER, 2010: Ladies and gentlemen I'd like to move a motion that all racing cease while the boat panel makes our case, to move the whole carnival now to north Kirra so everyone can race together in fairer conditions.

WENDY CARLISLE: They went on strike and refused to race at Kurrawa. Others continued to compete against their better judgement. Ruth Highman and Jane Humphrys were becoming increasingly anxious as they prepared to defend their double ski title.

JANE HUMPHRYS: I could see that it wasn't safe to race, and it just got continually worse during the week and each time they'd say that it was just like a disbelief. And we ended up, we, we came off coming in ah on a massive wave and it took us about 20 minutes to swim in and ah, it was treacherous. I was scared.

WENDY CARLISLE: Further down the beach, as the under 19 ironman semi finals were getting underway, the parents of New South Wales champion Saxon Bird, were watching with growing concern.

PHIL BIRD: It was chaotic. There was absolute madness. We'd already said to, to friends of ours, you know, "somebody's gonna get their head taken off in the way it's going." And we were watching the ski races, the double skis, the single skis, and there was skis going everywhere.

(Photo of Saxon Bird)

DANA BIRD: He was nervous, because he'd won the Ironman and he, I think he felt there was a lot of pressure on him to prove he could do it again and that he was worthy.

(Footage of the under 19's Ironman competition, 2010)

WENDY CARLISLE: Shortly after the start of the ski leg, several competitiors came unstuck. Their out-of-control skis pushed straight back at Saxon Bird. On the beach, Dana Bird was the first to realise her son had failed to surface.

DANA BIRD: I said, um "Saxon's missing, he's missing, he hasn't come up." The official said, "He's probably down the beach, please get out of the area." So and I, and I said to him, "no, no, he's not down the beach, he hasn't surfaced, please, you've got to find him." The officials that I spoke to, I told them Saxon was missing. They had no idea.

LIFE SAVING OFFICIAL: Guys we need that area cleared, we want all those swimmers out of there, all those swimmers out of there.

WENDY CARLISLE: It took an hour for Saxon Bird's body to be recovered.

ANNOUNCER: All competition at Kurrawa beach has been suspended for remainder of today.

BRETT WILLIAMSON, CEO, SLSA: The event was being reviewed after each event on the hour, it was - it's an ongoing process.

WENDY CARLISLE: What was your reaction when you heard that a competitor had drowned?

JANE HUMPHRYS: Anger. Like that is what I remember across the whole beach was just pure anger.

RUTH HIGHMAN: Absolutely. I think ah, that was the initial response was just the the sheer anger. Um...

WENDY CARLISLE: Because you believed it should have been called off earlier?

RUTH HIGHMAN: Absolutely, absolutely. They showed total disregard for competitor safety.

WENDY CARLISLE: That wasn't the conclusion reached by surf life saving's own inquiry. It said carnival officials had followed proper processes. But when the Queensland coroner handed down his findings in August 2011, Surf Life Saving came in for pointed criticism. The coroner said there was compelling evidence that conditions were unsuited to competition on the morning Saxon Bird died, and questioned whether the safety of competitors had been a high priority. The coroner also recommended that surf Life Saving should develop flotation vests for compulsory use, and consider using helmets, the same equipment surf lifesaving said it would look at after the death of Robert Gatenby more than a decade earlier.

WENDY CARLISLE (to Phil Bird): So if Saxon had been, you know, wearing a helmet, would that have helped him?

PHIL BIRD: Well, potentially because he was struck in the temple, if he had a helmet on, it would've lessened the blow. Ah I'm sure if he had a helmet on, he wouldn't have been knocked unconscious. The common thread is they've drowned because they haven't been able to be - locate them in time. If they were being able - been floating, they would've been found, they would've been rescued. In Saxon's case, he had perfectly survivable injuries.

WENDY CARLISLE: Last year Kurrawa beach was again the venue for the national titles. As surf conditions became more challenging, several events had to be moved or called off.

'MIDGET' FARRELLY: I think I was watching ski races ah, from the balcony and I was looking at it and I was going, "wow, there's hardly a ski making it back to the beach."

WENDY CARLISLE: Midget Farrelly was becoming concerned as he viewed the competition from the 25th floor of a high rise apartment overlooking Kurrawa.

'MIDGET' FARRELLY: All I could see was bodies and boards and, and an exploding bank and I thought, "wow, you know this is, this is special, I hope these people know what they're doing out there." I didn't realise that it was kids in the water. Ah, like it didn't dawn on me that there'd be kids out there.

WENDY CARLISLE: Four Corners has confirmed that on the third day of the carnival, professional lifeguards working for Gold Coast City Council advised the referee in charge of Under 15 events that they thought the surf was dangerous. Five hours after that warning, another desperate search was underway for a competitor who disappeared during the under 15 boys rescue board event. Matthew Barclay from the Maroochydore Surf Club was just 14.

PHIL BIRD: We heard the news during that afternoon that Matthew had gone missing, and it was just like a nightmare coming back again. And the more we learnt of it, it just seemed to be the same scenario being played over again. They didn't seem to have learnt anything.

BRETT WILLIAMSON: We've been advised that body of missing competitor of Matthew Barclay of Maroochydore Life Saving Club, was recovered north of Kurrawa beach this morning in the vicinity of Northcliffe.

WENDY CARLISLE: For the third time in just 17 years, Surf Life Saving's premier event had been marred by tragedy. A police report into the circumstances of Matthew Barclay's death is now in the hands of the Queensland coroner, who's yet to decide if there will be an inquest. But Four Corners can reveal there were other warnings on that fateful day which were apparently ignored.

GREG HOLLAND, FORMER PRESIDENT, CRONULLA SLSC: The warnings were clear, I believe, to everyone on the beach that it was very trying conditions for everyone, but particularly for the under 15s.

WENDY CARLISLE: Greg Holland is a former president of the Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club. Last year he was an official competition announcer and he could hear the two way radio chat as the beach officials in the Under 15 area talked to the deputy referee.

GREG HOLLAND: There was a request coming from the people on the beach, the parents on the beach, the ah, the public, and also the other ah, the other officials who were involved in the carnival, ah that the surf conditions were, were pretty strong for ah those, that young group of competitors and that possibly they could consider either moving - changing the order of events or delaying those events to another later in the day, or trying to move them to another day.

WENDY CARLISLE: You actually heard that on the radio?

GREG HOLLAND: I heard that at least, at least twice, that request go through and one of the officials who has the authority to, to make the adjustments, ah advised no, asked them to keep going as per the normal program.

(Reconstruction of 2012 events)

WENDY CARLISLE: Later, as dusk fell and hopes of finding Mathew Barclay alive had faded, Greg Holland recalls a disturbing conversation with the same referee as they walked along Kurrawa beach.

GREG HOLLAND: The deputy referee has said to me, you know, "It's a great shame, because we were about to call this off anyway." And I said, "please don't tell me that because that was the same response that we understood was given in 2010, that you were about to call it off just before Saxon Bird's accident." And I, and there was no response. We walked on in silence, but I then thought "well, how has this happened again?"

WENDY CARLISLE: There were reasonable grounds to believe that there was a reasonable risk of injury in the under 15 arena when Matthew Barclay drowned weren't there?

GREG NANCE: I can't comment on that.

WENDY CARLISLE: Well I just want to lay out some statements of fact to you. The professional life guards were warning the ah, area referee in that arena that it was dangerous.

GREG NANCE: I can't comment on that.

WENDY CARLISLE: The rowers had to be moved?

GREG NANCE: Can't comment on that either.

WENDY CARLISLE: And that concerns were relayed by the Under 15 area ref to the deputy referee on at least two occasions before Matthew Barclay drowned.

GREG NANCE: I can't comment on that and probably, you can keep asking me the questions but it is still subject to a coronial ah report. We're awaiting that so it's subdued to say for us, Joe is it subdued to say for us? I can't comment on it.

WENDY CARLISLE: But given that background were there not reasonable grounds for the um, competition to be suspended in Matthew Barclay's arena?

GREG NANCE: No I can't comment on that and I won't.

WENDY CARLISLE: Surf Life Saving has introduced major changes to the running of the carnival since last year's tragedy. Its early morning on North Kirra beach and acting CEO Greg Nance is presiding over the daily meeting of the carnival safety committee.

SAFETY OFFICIAL: We've been out there and done assessment this morning of whole site, in terms of the competition.

WENDY CARLISLE: Once competition gets underway, area risk assessors monitor every event, with the power to suspend competition at a moment's notice.

GREG NANCE: Ah they can call the event off in their area immediately if they have safety concerns which it doesn't have to be bounced up to any central, central ah, decision making authority if the referee, if they feel it's unsafe they stop the event.

WENDY CARLISLE: And while Surf Life Saving maintains they had the power to suspend competition last year, this year its safety officer Adam Weir's job to make sure they know it.

ADAM WEIR, COASTAL RISK MANAGER, SLSA: It isn't a new power like every area previously had the, had the power to, to pause running. I guess it's been more formalised this year. Everyone knows where they fit in and what their responsibilities are and, um, it's great to see that cultural change on the beach.

WENDY CARLISLE: Surf Life Saving maintains that it has implemented most of the coroner's safety recommendations after the death of Saxon Bird. But in the grim aftermath of Matthew Barclay's death last year, then CEO Brett Williamson publicly admitted how slow progress had been on the crucial issue of safety equipment such as helmets.

BRETT WILLIAMSON: That has certainly been on the radar, is on the radar, it was one of the outcomes of our own internal inquiry following Robert Gatenby to look at that.

WENDY CARLISLE: Sixteen years after making a public commitment to consider the introduction of flotation vests and helmets, Surf Life Saving staged a media event to demonstrate its progress, just three weeks out from this year's national titles. The news wasn't good.

BREE CORBETT, PROJECT MANAGER, SLSA: When we were doing some of the trialling, the vests were riding up over the mouths of the users, which then restricts breathing even further. That's a great risk to our surf life savers, also, restricting the ability to swim. It's probably the worst thing that we can do for a surf life saver. So we need to make sure that we're not introducing any of those risks before we even look at anything further.

WENDY CARLISLE: Three of the sport's superstars Shannon Eckstein, Naomi Flood and Phil Clayton, gave the vests the thumbs down.

PHIL CLAYTON: We've got a great iconic sport here in Australia and to bring something in that's going to slow it down and hinder it, the sport, and slow pretty much everybody down, I think it's gonna be, I don't think it will be too well received.

SHANNON ECKSTEIN: Um this one was uncomfortable to paddle on the board. It rode up a little bit around the ears.

NAOMI FLOOD: Sometimes the vests don't fit, this is a small vest and it's um, it's not that suitable so the helmets aren't suitable either, the sizing, so...

GRANT WILKINSON, SURFVEST: It needs to be a really tight, snug fit. Naomi's is definitely loose. It's riding right up high here and a dive under the water and the, the shirt rides right up, the, the vest comes right up under his ears, like that's way too large for him.

WENDY CARLISLE: Grant Wilkinson has spent the past six years developing one of the flotation vests being evaluated by Surf Lifesaving. He's a former national and world champion who's spent a lifetime competing in the surf. Grant Wilkinson believes there's a simple reason his flotation vest copped such a public panning.

GRANT WILKINSON: That to me looks like she's got too much buoyancy for her own body weight. You know, I'm happy for them to go out and put it through its paces but at least put them in a vest that is fitted correctly and has got the correct amount of buoyancy in for their body weight.

BREE CORBETT: So I'm the Operations Project Manager for Surf Live Saving Australia...

WENDY CARLISLE: Bree Corbett, who is running surf Life Saving's evaluation program, says she was only demonstrating the vests that had been supplied by the manufacturers.

WENDY CARLISLE (to Bree Corbett): Didn't you know already that those vests weren't the correct size?

BREE CORBETT: Yep, but that's the vest that I was given by the manufacturer that day.

WENDY CARLISLE: So you knew it wouldn't work on the day?

BREE CORBETT: I know the vest doesn't work. We've done multiple trials with the vest.

WENDY CARLISLE: So why conduct a media demonstration with three of your champions, three of the superstars of the sport, who are opposed to these devices in the first place?

BREE CORBETT: I can't find anyone who wants to wear them. I didn't have, there's no-one else. I couldn't have put anyone else in front of a camera who would be positive about it.

WENDY CARLISLE: Dane Farrell is the New South Wales Ironman champion. He finished fourth at the recent national titles. He's spent months putting the Surf Vest through its paces.

DANE FARRELL, CHAMPION IRONMAN: I think the best thing about it is when you do come off your board or your ski, you have the ability to go under a wave in case you got in trouble.

WENDY CARLISLE: So there's no impediment in you diving under?

DANE FARRELL: Nah, no impediment whatsoever.

WENDY CARLISLE: Does it, does it ride up at all or stop you breathing, get in the way of breathing?

DANE FARRELL Nah, it doesn't ride up at all. So if you have the right size, like I've got a small and I don't find it rides up in any way, shape or form when I'm either training or competing in it.

WENDY CARLISLE: Do the vests let you dive under the waves or, or dive under to avoid a ski if it's coming at you?

STUART KEAY, LIFEGUARD: Yeah, I can dive under with, with the vest on, no problems at all, yeah.

WENDY CARLISLE: Stuart Keay has been a professional lifeguard on the Gold Coast for more than three decades. For the past three months he's been part of a group testing the Surftrakka vest, another device which got the thumbs down in surf lifesaving's media demonstration.

STUART KEAY: Every time I come off I'll float, whether I get dumped or whatever. I can paddle a surf craft, ski or board ah, and it doesn't restrict my paddling. So it's eh quite effective.

WENDY CARLISLE: Despite such credible endorsements, Surf Life Saving maintains the equipment is not yet suitable for use in the surf.

GREG NANCE: I'm not convinced ah yet that, I'm not personally, and I don't have evidence in front of me to say that there's no secondary risk associated with ah the introduction of these, these equipment's and we need to be sure, we need to be sure that we don't bring a secondary risk situation into our members and I'm not going to, the organisation won't do that

CRAIG SMITH-GANDER, PRESIDENT, NORTH COTTESLOE SLSC: It's an issue that Surf Life Saving simply needs to, to tackle full on. Don't take 10 years to look at a solution which is already there.

(Footage of North Cottesloe Surf Club members training)

WENDY CARLISLE: In Western Australia some surf clubs aren't waiting for the national body when it comes to the introduction of safety equipment. Craig Smith-Gander is the president of the North Cottesloe Surf Club, which has introduced mandatory use of helmets and flotation vests in dangerous surf.

CRAIG SMITH GANDER: If we believe the conditions are dangerous enough or potentially dangerous enough that all rowers should wear helmets and ah and inserts, the sweeps will collectively make a decision. They will go away as a group, they will talk about it, and they will enforce it. So then it's compulsory and everyone has to wear them. It takes the decision out of the ah, the rowers' hands.

WENDY CARLISLE: When surf clubs from all over the west gathered for the state championships at Trigg Beach, many surf boat competitors had made their own decision to don protective gear. The open women's surf boat crew from the North Cottesloe Club are the state champions and national silver medallists.

REBECCA TRAVAGLIONE, NORTH COTTESLOE SLSC: I don't mind wearing the helmet because it gives you confidence. But I think the vest is more important anyway, at least - I mean this protects your head but the vest no matter what happens even if you get knocked out anything can happen to you but you will always float to the surface which I think is more important anyway so, yeah i think the vests number one should be compulsory.

NATALIE WHITESIDE, NORTH COTTESLOE SLSC: The men tend to not really wear them because they're all high and mighty but as you can see most people here wearing them because of the nasty shore bank, shore dump.

WENDY CARLISLE: And that shore dump was delivering some testing surf. The decision by many to opt for helmets and flotation vests was soon vindicated when a rower was injured in a rollover.

DAVID HUNT, NORTH COTTESLOE SLSC: Definitely the helmet would have had an effect in, in any potential head injury. The helmet being on has, has obviously, um, had the potential to have a great effect on stopping head injury or, or reducing the, the severity of a head injury, yeah.

TONY ABBOTT, OPPOSITION LEADER: Great to see so many people turn up for the 3rd annual swim for Saxon.

WENDY CARLISLE: On the anniversary of Saxon Bird's death, his club mates at Queenscliff on Sydney's Northern Beaches turn out in their hundreds for a memorial swim in his honour. It's an event the local federal MP is happy to endorse.

TONY ABBOTT: Surf Life Saving is an Australian icon. I guess we can always do better and the tragedy that befell Saxon is a sign of the need for us to do better. And thank God Surf Life Saving has moved things to a beach which should be so much safer than the one that claimed Saxon's life.

WENDY CARLISLE: Three years after the death of their son, Phil and Dana Bird are still waiting for surf lifesaving to do better when it comes to the introduction of safety equipment.

PHIL BIRD: You've had virtually 12 months since Matthew's death, you've had three years since Saxon's death, you've had 16 years since Robert's death, and still there's nothing in place. Ah you've got to ask the question, you know, "how long does it take t-to put something in place?"

KERRY O'BRIEN: Surf Life Saving Australia has told us there will be major announcements on safety equipment sometime this year. What do you say, better late than never? It does sound a bit pathetic really. And on governance, the full Deloitte report still has not been publically released.

Next week on Four Corners: Raising Adam Lanza. Piecing together the psychological profile of the 20-year-old, who went on a murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December, triggering yet another deeply divisive debate on gun control in America. Until then, good night.


Background Information


SLSA's Responses to Findings and Recommendations | Jul 2012 - SLS responds to the 1996 Inquiry into the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships, as well as the Independent Panel's Recommendations in 2010 and the Queensland Coroner's Recommendations in 2011.

Coronial findings: Saxon Phillip Bird | Queensland Courts | Aug 2011 - Read the coroner's findings - including the preventative recommendations - of the Inquest into the death of Saxon Bird during a SLSA event. Prepared by Queensland Coroner Mr Michael Barnes. [PDF 225Kb]

'The Coulsen Report' Australian Surf Life Saving Championships Inquiry 2010 | Coulsen & Raeburn | Nov 2010 - SLSA instructed the legal firm Lander & Rogers to commission an internal inquiry into the 2010 Australian Surf Life Saving Championships (Inquiry). The panel was headed by Queensland barrister Craig Coulsen. Read their report. [PDF 380Kb]


Surf warnings ignored before boy drowned: official | ABC News | 6 May 2013 - An official at last year's National Surf Life Saving Championships says senior carnival referees were warned about dangerous surf conditions "at least twice" several hours before a young competitor drowned. By Wendy Carlisle.

MEDIA RELEASE: SLSA Appoints New Independent Directors to the Board | SLSA | 26 Apr 2013 - Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) has announced the appointment of Christine Hopton, Lynette Barratt and Martin Walsh as the organisation's new Independent Directors.

Lifesavers unimpressed by competitor safety gear | ABC News | 26 Mar 2013 - Three teenage competitors have died at the Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships at Kurrawa Beach on the Gold Coast since 1996. That has prompted Surf Lifesaving Australia to investigate the use of safety equipment for its competitors... The gear will not be used at this year's titles, due to begin on April 15, unless individual competitors choose to do so.

How ironmen wiped out surf board | SMH | 23 Mar 2013 - Australia's lifesavers can't be blamed for swimming scared these days. On the back of two deaths at recent national titles, Surf Life Saving Australia on Tuesday decided to relocate next month's surf boat events from Tugun to North Kirra because the Gold Coast beach had insufficient sand.

Risk assessors to monitor lifesaving comp | ABC News | 20 Mar 2013 - Surf Life Saving Australia will use risk assessors at next month's national titles on Queensland's Gold Coast.

LISTEN: Surf Life Saving Australia hits back at critics | ABC Breakfast | 13 Feb 2013 - The president of Surf Life Saving Queensland, Ralph Devlin SC, has lashed out at former Ironman champion and a major critic of the organisation, Grant Kenny, in an interview with RN Breakfast.

Trouble on the beach as heavy hitters quit | The Daily Telegraph | 7 Feb 2013 - Iconic national institution Surf Life Saving Australia has been plunged into crisis after six members of its fundraising board quit, signalling no confidence in the organisation's chief executive.

LISTEN: Fatal shore: the deaths of three teenage surf lifesavers | Background Briefing | May 2012 - Matthew Barclay, Saxon Bird and Robert Gatenby all died while competing at national surf championship events on the Gold Coast. Their deaths occurred in different years but at the same beach, and all in heavy surf conditions. Were their deaths preventable? Did Surf Life Saving Australia fail in its duty of care? Reporter: Wendy Carlisle

Coroner under spotlight in wake of lifesaving death | ABC News | 14 May 2012 - The mother of the 14-year-old killed at the Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships on Queensland's Gold Coast in 1996 says the coroner investigating the death of her son did not disclose his involvement in surf lifesaving. By Wendy Carlisle.

Surf Life Saving Queensland deny claims of sponsorship over safety | ABC Gold Coast | 2 Apr 2012 - Surf Life Saving Queensland President (SLSQ) Ralph Devlin has denied claims sponsorship is put before safety after the third death of a teenage competitor in the national competition since 1996.

Barclay family release statement | ABC Gold Coast | 30 Mar 2012 - Matthew Barclay's family have released a statement to the media. This is the first time they have spoken since the tragedy of their son's death.

WATCH: Life saving death brings sadness and questions | ABC 7.30 | 29 Mar 2012 - The death of a young competitor at the national surf lifesaving titles on the Gold Coast has put the sport in crisis, touched many and raised questions.

Surf officials 'should face criminal charges' over Matthew Barclay drowning, says lawyer for Saxon Bird's family | The Courier-Mail | 29 Mar 2012 - The lawyer for drowned ironman Saxon Bird's family has called for a royal commission into the running of the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships on the Gold Coast.

Lifesaver death: event should have been called off | SMH | 2 Aug 2011 - All water craft events should have been suspended the day teenage lifesaver Saxon Bird died in heavy surf on the Gold Coast last year, a coroner has ruled.

Lifesavers hit by investment disaster | SMH | 24 Dec 2007 - Surf Life Saving NSW is among more than 100 investors in a collapsed multimillion-dollar property group run by the head of the volunteer organisation... Mr Harrod was the deputy president of Surf Life Saving NSW when it started investing in Harcorp-related property trusts in 2003. He denied any conflict of interest.


Australian Surf Rowers League -

The Balnaves Foundation is a private philanthropic organisation established in 2006 by Neil Balnaves AO to provide support to charitable enterprises across Australia.

SEA Australia is highly regarded as the premier provider of Surf Education programs along Australia's east coast.

Surf Life Saving Australia | @SLS_Online -

Surf Life Saving NSW | @slsnsw -

Surf Life Saving Queensland | @surfqld -

Surf Life Saving SA | @SurfLifeSA -

Life Saving Victoria | @LifeSavingVic -

Surf Life Saving WA | @SLSWA -

Surfprobe - This site seeks to enlist community support for the appointment of a Royal Commission into drowning deaths at Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships.

Swim for Saxon: Facebook Campaign -


The Price of Pearl | 5 Jul 2012 - Pearls; they're beautiful, luxurious and the height of fashion, but what price is being paid by the young divers who fetch pearl shells from the deep?

Tags: business-economics-and-finance, charities-and-community-organisations, sports-organisations, swimming, volunteers, surf-life-saving, australia, nsw, qld, wa

First posted May 6, 2013 17:12:00