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Ever since it was organized, in 1907, the Surf Life Saving Association has prospered, its sport insulated from most of the world, on beaches with aboriginal names that ignite the imagination—Coolangatta, Mollymook, Mooloolaba, Maroubra and Maroochydore, Dee Why and Wollongong. The image of its practitioners is of barrel-chested, beer-drinking, shark-sneering men with nicknames like Bunger and Horrorful, Gimme and God, Sniffer and Itchy, Schizo and Senile, The Ant and Wonald the Wooster.
It's not rare for lifesavers to train out beyond the protective nets, where the sharks and manta rays play. But Bill Hutchinson remembers a 1959 swimming race at Northcliffe Beach, on the east coast, when the water turned red and someone yelled, "Shark!" Thirty yards behind him a swimmer flailed in the water, bleeding profusely from deep gashes in one leg. Even more terrifying, Hutchinson and the eight other swimmers could not locate the fin. They banded into a group and gingerly approached the victim, saving him from drowning. "Bloody hell," Hutchinson says. "For a moment, I was almost a Catholic."
What men! you say, what machismo! Wait. At midday of the surf carnival at Kawana Waters, the swimmers, the sprinters, the surfboard paddlers, the surf-skiers and the boaties all pause. The beach becomes quiet. Suddenly, Scottish bandsmen in black shoes, knee-high socks and kilts stride onto the sand, bagpipes wailing. The athletes, dressed in old-fashioned bathing suits, pop out of their club tents and march in units of 12, with gray-haired, potbellied men clutching flags in the lead. Officials scurry about jotting scores on their clipboards, judging the marchers for posture, pace and unity as they step across the sand in rhythm to the Scottish tune.
The March Past is one of the sweet traditions of the sport, a time for the older, more advanced beer drinkers of each surf club to pull on matching tank tops and participate with the young. At a "Nippers" carnival for children at Southport not long ago, a man with anchor and eagle tattoos on his arms barked at a group of 11-and 12-year-old girls trying to master the marching tradition. "Concentrate, concentrate!" growled Barry Thomas, a member of the Kurrawa Surf Life Saving Club. "Keep yer heads up! Shoulders back! Blue, stay in step!"
"This is important," said Thomas. "These kids have to learn discipline. When you're conducting a beach rescue, you can't have everybody running willy-nilly. I love the March Past. When you wear these old togs and carry these flags and suck yer gut in...you own that beach, mate!"
As Thomas spoke, a school of fish went thrashing into the surf, surrounded by nine men in orange caps. The fish were actually a flotilla of 6-year-olds, accompanied by club members, practicing for the day they grow up to become 7-year-old Nippers and can begin competing in carnivals. The elements of community, of belonging, are inseparable from the lifesaving movement.
On the day of a carnival, a beach becomes a roped-off, five-ring circus, each group of competitors in a colorful world of its own. At one end are the 25-man groups of boaties—thick, bearded, tattooed—cursing and grunting as they hoist the boats onto their shoulders, each vessel looking like an amphibious semi-centipede as it's transported from the club truck to the beach. The boaties lovingly massage their craft with beeswax and grease to make it ready for the lunacy of the sea, and then roll their bathing suits into G-strings so their bare buttocks will slide more easily across the seats as they row.
At the other end of the beach, ski paddlers bend over their hollow surf-skis and blow furiously into a hole at one end—the more air pressure inside, the better the flotation and the less water will seep in. In the middle area, the beach sprinters strip off their multicolored designer track suits, jangle the kinks from their legs and comb their hair so the wind won't crimp their possibilities with the bronze sheila baking on a blanket a few yards away. (Boaties loathe beach sprinters.)
Nearby, the surfboard paddlers and the swimmers cup their hands over their eyes and study the sea for alleys where the surf looks less cruel. Meanwhile, the Ironmen sit in the shade of their club tents, conserving energy and discussing strategy. The spectators, numbering anywhere from 100 to 40,000, stab umbrellas into the sand, butter themselves with protection against the subtropical sun and file off to the beer tent to stave off dehydration. Some of the crowd are weather-wrinkled former competitors, rooting for the lifesavers from their surf clubs, and some are honey-skinned women in truly inspiring bikinis, who simply wish to bask in all this virility.
"I hate it," says boatie Paul Auer, otherwise known as Schizo, "when we're out their getting knocked silly by the bloody waves, and all you can hear over the surf are all the sheilas squealing every time we get clobbered."