The History of Lifesaving in KwaZulu Natal

The early days in Durban

The first record of organised lifesaving in South Africa was of a Breakwater Club which was in existence in the Vetch’s Pier area (next to the harbour mouth) in the 1890’s. This was an area where sailing ships anchored when they could not get across the sandbar at the entrance to the Durban Bay. Here at Breakwaters Club, the prototype of the most widely used single piece of lifesaving equipment - the Rescue Torpedo Buoy was invented. In 1897 a Captain Sheffield experimented with a floating buoy that was attached to a swimmer and could be towed. The Captain later went to the United States where he further developed the buoy in about 1915.

Prior to the early 1900’s, the Victoria Embankment (Esplanade) was Durban’s main bathing, fishing and sailing and promenading spot. The first bathing house was built in 1857 by George Archer, the habour pilot. It was an odd-looking mangrove–wood shed sited in shallow water some 50 meters from the bay shore and entrance fee was two guineas a year. Gentlemen and children used it in the morning and ladies in the afternoon, it was called “Archer’s Hencoop”. Eventually it was replaced by a men-only “bathing stage”. The Indian Ocean foreshore had remained a wide belt of sand sloping gently to the sea, backed by a line of high dunes.  A break in the dunes, fronting on West Street (now called Dr Pixley KaSeme Street) a board-walk laid from Gillespie Street, gave access to the “back beach”.

The Durban Beachfront first started to develop in 1907. The development was a bathing enclosure, esplanade, paddling pools, retaining walls, rockeries and ornamental gardens, extending from the present North Beach to South Beach. The semi-circular bathing enclosure was to protect the bathers from sharks and dangerous currents and the entrance fee was four pence. Two professional life guards were employed by the Durban City Engineers Department to protect bathers in the bathing enclosure, later, by 1926 the lifeguard section employed six lifeguards. These lifeguards wore red full-length woolen costumes with “Royal Lifesaving Society” embroidered on the front. It must be assumed that these lifeguards had a RLSS qualification. A heavy storm in February, 1908 scoured out the enclosure to a depth of 14 feet (4.3 m). Unfortunately, the sandy beach was gradually further eroded so that at high-tide, only the active and good swimmers were able to swim within the enclosure and consequently people started to use the beach in front of the present Addington Hospital. Subsequently some drownings started to occur and unfortunately the professional lifeguards could not cope. A young band of body-surfers suddenly found themselves helping with rescues, “help-outs” and crowd control.


The Royal Lifesaving Society Development

The Royal Lifesaving Society (RLSS) officially began in South Africa in 1911 after Sir William Henry, who at the time was the secretary of the society, toured all British Commonwealth member countries to establish branches of the RLSS. Lifesaving training must have taken place at schools and swimming clubs such as Tech, Queens Park and Otters Swimming Clubs in Durban. Interestingly the certification of the lifesavers was in the hands of the RLSS who were teaching and certifying lifesavers since 1913.

The RLSS, South Africa branch was active, for example in 1958, 4 171 Artificial Respiration awards were awarded. Regular competitions were staged and the South African lifesaving championships were held a day after the South African swimming championships. During the 1970’s and 1980's South Africa competed in a number of overseas events.

In 1961 the RLSS broke of all contact with the South African Branch as a result of the Anti-Apartheid boycotts and the South African Water Safety Council was formed. It was reconstructed as the South African Lifesaving Society and in 1979 the name of the Society was again changed to the South African National Water Safety Council. In 1994 South Africa Lifesaving was readmitted to the RLSS.

There were a number of Stillwater lifesaving clubs in KwaZulu Natal, being: Durban Central, Reunion Aquatic, Aquafin, Empangeni Lifesaving, Newcastle and Ladysmith.

South Africa staged a number of RLSS Commonwealth Championships, held in Durban in 2003, 2011 and 2017.

The first surf lifesaving clubs

Early in 1926 a certain Mr. Thornton arrived in Durban from Bondi Beach, Australia. Due to several drowning that had occurred along the Durban beachfront, he suggested that a voluntary lifesaving club be formed to patrol the beaches, similar to what is in Australia. Members of Queens Park, Otters and Tech Swimming clubs met and it was decided to form such a club.  In July 1926 members of the Tech Swimming Club formed two squads of four and started to patrol the beach outside the bathing enclosure on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.

At a meeting held on 28th June, 1927, in the Mayor’s parlour at the Durban City Hall, attended by about forty people, the Durban Surf Lifesaving Club was formed. Duty squads were formed and patrols were done in front of the Kenilworth (just north of the present North Beach), on Saturday afternoons, Sundays and Public Holidays. The club rules stated that “any intending members must hold the RLSS Proficiency Certificate” and later a Bronze and Silver Medallion.  From there the patrols expanded to include “Scotsman’s Pool” and eventually to North and South beaches. At first there was no clubhouse at all and the club existed on funds raised by members. After some time, the City Council allowed a small grant-in-aid for costumes and the use of a small room at the deep end of the “Beach Baths” swimming pool situated at North Beach.

In January, 1928 Amanzimtoti SLC was formed and on 3rd February, 1928 the Pirates Surf Lifesaving Club was formed and patrols were performed at a beach called “Back Beach”, later to be known as Country Club Beach. From there on the list of clubs grew: Durban Indian SLSC (1932), Scottburgh SLSC, Warnadoone SLSC, Winklespruit SLSC, Port Shepstone (a branch of Pirates SLSC). Their efforts were expanded individually, each had its own system and requests for assistance to the various persons in authority often conflicted with each other.

Surf Lifesaving Association of South Africa

In 1933 the visiting Wallaby Rugby Team touring South Africa had some lifesavers amongst them and a lifesaving competition was arranged in their honour. There was a parade of lifesavers along the Lower Marine Parade prior to the competition, with the Wallabies leading, followed by the local clubs. The Australian suggested a South African Surf Lifesaving Association (SLASA) and the result was a meeting at the Winklespruit Hotel on 21st May, 1933 and the Surf Lifesaving Association of South Africa (now called Lifesaving South Africa) was formed – an association of all the surf clubs.

Surf lifesaving developed after the formation of SLASA and the number of clubs grew all along the KwaZulu Natal coast line and later expanded to the Eastern Cape and Western Province. The first “Surf Championships” were held on 16th December, 1936 at the Scotsman’s Pool. The Associations new drill in 1939 was written up and in 1960 the Surf Proficiency Award (SPA) was introduced as the basic lifesaving award and it replaced the RLSS Bronze Medallion. Today the award is called “Lifeguard Award “(LA).

As part of the Durban City Centenary celebrations an Australia lifesaving team visit was arranged. This led to a tour to Australia in 1956. Later on SLASA arranged tours to the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and the USA. These countries also had tours to South Africa. Unfortunately, due to the sporting boycotts, from about 1985 all sporting links with lifesaving countries ceased.

In 1977 the black lifesaving clubs disaffiliated from SLASA due to the sporting boycotts and they formed the South African Lifesaving Union.  They continued with performing their beach duties and ran their own examinations and competitions.

On 15th April, 1984 the Surf Lifesaving Association of South Africa and the South African Water Safety Council amalgamated to form South Africa Lifesaving. In 1994 South Africa Lifesaving and the South African Lifesaving Union were unified and Lifesaving South Africa was readmitted to the RLSS. Later the name changed to Lifesaving South Africa.

Formation of Central and Southern Natal Surf Lifesaving Associations

SLASA grew and prospered and it was mooted in 1952 that provincial associations be formed to run their respective province in terms of dealing with the local and provincial authorities, training, examinations and competitions. This came a reality in 1958, when four provinces were created – Central Natal, Southern Natal, Eastern Cape and Western Province.

Central Natal region was from the north, from the Mozambique border in the north to the Umlaas Canal in the south, and Southern Natal region was from the Umlaas Canal to the Transkei border, the Umtavuma River. The first chairman of Central Natal was Pat Dreyer from Durban Surf who chaired the province from its inception to when he passed away in 1976 and the President was Maurice Scott, a founding member of Amanzimtoti SLSC and father of the well-known ski paddler, Tony Scott, followed by John Coyne of Umhlanga Rocks. The Southern Natal founding chairman was Tommy Dukes from Warnadoone.

From 1980 SLASA employed provincial secretaries/administrators to assist the running of the provinces.  In Central Natal, Sharron Carlson was employed and in Southern Natal Sandra Bentall.

Formation of KwaZulu Natal Lifesaving

With the restructuring of provincial and metropolitan boundaries it became necessary to amend the structure of the provincial lifesaving administrations. Lifesaving South Africa was now fully integrated with surf and still water lifesaving and required one KwaZulu Natal representative on the national council. Furthermore, the provincial sport department and the eThekwini Metropolitan Council wanted to deal with one lifesaving body – so there was a need to form one provincial lifesaving body.

At a meeting held on 12th December, 2012, it was unanimously agreed that the three associations, Central and Southern Natal Surf Lifesaving Associations and KwaZulu Natal Stillwater Lifesaving Association merge to form one provincial association to be called Lifesaving KwaZulu Natal and to come into effect on 1st January, 2013. The new office bearers to be:

President          John Coyne (Umhlanga Rocks and Central Natal)

Chairman          Mike Raubenheimer (Marine and Central Natal Chairman)

Vice Chairman  Mickey Thompson (Warnadoone and Southern Natal Chairman)

Treasurer          Barbara Banks (Pirates and Central Natal)

Secretary          Jackie Fabre (Marine and Central Natal)

From the Administrators, Sharron Carlson and Sandra Bentall both retired in 2014 and Lesley Lunn became the new KZN Secretary.

In 2021 Mike Raubenheimer retired as Chairman and Troye Brown (Marine) took over the helm. John Coyne still remained the President.

Achievements of Lifesaving KwaZulu Natal

  • The oldest lifesaving club in South Africa is Durban Surf, founded in 1927.
  • LKZN is the only province to do duties for 12 months of the year and to date LKZN is responsible for over 60% of all rescues recorded in South Africa.
  • LKZN carries out duties from Richards Bay in the North to Port Edward in the South and Ladysmith inland with over 20 active clubs with an active membership of over 1 200 qualified voluntary lifeguards, who have performed the most rescues in surf and in inland waters (Lifesaving South Africa’s Annual Report). This number is given as 62 209 being 62% of all recorded rescues to date in South Africa.
  • The Province lives up to the lifesaving motto of “vigilance & service” and this is borne out by the numerous bravery awards bestowed on our members, both locally and internationally.
  • World recognised Cardiac Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) was developed in Durban between lifesaving clubs and Dr Sherman Ripley of University of Natal in 1959. SLASA was the first world organisation to adopt CPR.
  • The Ripley resuscitator was the forerunner of today’s Oxygenator used throughout the world by all lifeguard’s & medical profession. The use of this equipment formed part of the old SLASA Surf Proficiency Award (SPA) and now replaced by the LSA Lifeguards Award.
  • Fred Crocker (Pirates) built, what is believed to be the first surf ski in 1937. The ski was later re-designed by Harry Roseweir of Amanzimtoti. Later the surf skis were perfected by Paul Chalupsky and Tony Scott.
  • In 1934 at Warner Beach the Massey Belt was developed – this allowed the beltman to release the belt and line if the beltman was pulled under or the lifeline got stuck. The belt is still in use today and is actually illustrated in the Australian Competition Manual.
  • The first a long distance ski race, the Scottburgh to Brighton, was first held in 1958.
  • Durban Surf was the first club to go on an International tour, to the United Kingdom back in 1969.
  • Durban Surf is the only South African and non-Australian club to have won a Lifesaving World Interclub Championship. They did it twice, back in 1998 (New Zealand) and 2004 (Italy).
  • KwaZulu Natal hosted Rescue 96, the Lifesaving World Championship, in Durban at North Beach and King’s Park Swimming pool. The province was the local organising committee.
  • Durban Surf won the grand aggregate at the South African Championships for 50 years in a row, from 1966 to 2015 (2 years the championships were cancelled due to dangerous surf). Marine SLSC beat Durban Surf in 2015.
  • Stacey Bowley and Jelle Meintsma (both from Durban Surf) have been inducted into the International Lifesaving Hall of Fame – Stacey for her competitive achievements and Jelle for his work on sport.
  • Two Durban Surf members, Tony Scott and Paul Chalupsky, paddled a double ski from Cape Town to Durban in 1974.
  • KZN administrators were founding members of the International Council of Surf Lifesaving (in 1956) and later World Lifesaving and held the positions of President and Secretary – Denis Osborne and Gabie Botha and later Allen Ross and Derrick Whitting of the latter.
  • South Africa hosted the first big international drowning prevention conference in Durban in 1974. This conference and international lifesaving test series was hosted by KZN.
  • Derrick Whitting chaired the Joint Working Committee for the merger between Federation Internatonale de Sauvetage (FIS) and World Lifesaving (WLS). Later Derrick became the President of ILS (1996 to 2000).
  • Derrick Whitting (Pirates) started the first nippers for boys between 10 and 12 years old in KZN. This later proved to be to a very successful and was expanded to include girls and the ages were extended from 8 years old to 14-year-old youngsters.
  • LKZN have over the years supplied numerous Referees and Technical Officials for LSA Championships as well as to ILS for World Lifesaving Championships (WLC) - the only South African Province to have had Referees appointed for LWC events.
  • Durban Surf is the only SA club to have won the Lifesaving World Championship twice, back in 1998 (New Zealand) and 2004 (Italy).
  • Numerous KZN individuals and teams, too many to name, have won World titles for events at LWC events.
  • A number of KwaZulu Natal members were recognised by international lifesaving federations for their contribution, they are: World Lifesaving: Honorary Members - Denis Osborne (1984) and Derrick Whitting (1993) and International Lifesaving Federation: Grand Knight in the order of Lifesaving - Denis Osborne (1994), Derrick Whitting (1994), Gabie Botha (1996), Mike Mortimer (1996) and Jelle Meintsma (2008). Knight in the order of Lifesaving - Jelle Meintsma (2004) and Allen Pembroke (2022).