Who Owns the Beach?

A complaint from North Bondi swimmers has sparked a proposal to restrict surfboards and reignited old tensions over who rules the waves on eastern beaches.
Emily Macdonald investigates

Tony Falstein is what you could call an old salt. For more than half a century the 80-year-old Bondi resident and Bondi Surf Bathers club member has swum the beach almost daily.

When Mr Falstein first started swimming at Bondi, it was a place frequented by the swell chasers frothing to take on the southern waves and by local families who would drum beach etiquette into the next generation. Now as well as the thousands of tourists from across the world, Sydneysiders from all corners of our sprawling city make the trek to the cultural mecca.

Mr Falstein entreated the mayor to respond to the increasing number of unsafe interactions he has witnessed between surfers and other beach users.

“This is not a surf club issue or an old farts’ issue — it’s a safety issue,” Mr Falstein told the Wentworth Courier.

What came next blew everyone out of the water.

In what Mayor John Wakefield describes as an “unfortunately worded” online survey (of which he was not the author), respondents were asked last week if they would support restricting all finned surf craft to the southern end of the beach.

Bondi Boardriders surfing club slammed the suggestion, urging its modest but intensely loyal social media following to rally against the council. “There is currently talk from council (about) making all surf crafts with fins only usable in the south end,” the club posted. “This would include nippers, soft boards, surf skis, stand-up paddle boards, paddle boards… If they agree with the proposal there will be nowhere for our kids to learn about the ocean other than sticking them with hundreds of surfers on glass boards with kooks mowing them down.”

Amidst the swirling waters of what has come to be known as the “surf ban” idea, the issue which sparked the furore has been swept out to sea — how do we keep everyone safe on Australia’s most famous stretch of sand?

Cr Wakefield is concerned the “unfortunately worded” original survey has detracted from an escalating problem which he says is exacerbated by lifeguards he believes aren’t vigilant enough at policing surfcraft.

On Monday, council relaunched a toned down version of the survey. Cr Wakefield says the new questions about buffer zones and the definition of a surfboard to include a soft board with fins are more in line with an original council motion in March that resolved to consult with the public over beach safety.

Mr Falstein, who regularly asks surfers to move outside the flags as he is concerned for the welfare of swimmers and young families, said he supports buffer zones either side of the flags. “We’re not trying to stop the grommets in the northern corner or the surf schools or the surf clubs and the nippers,” he says.

“We’re not against board riders — we’re against irresponsible ones who don’t care where they go. It used to be a rite of passage for the groms. They’d start in the north and graduate to the south.”

He also believes restricting the majority of surfers to the “southern end” of the beach is not as drastic as it sounds.

“They’re not being relegated to a tiny corner of the southern end down near the rocks. The southern end starts at the steps so that’s about 500m. They’d still have half the beach.”

Says Wakefield: “I wish to assure all users of the beach that there is no plan or proposal to ban soft boards from the north end of Bondi Beach… Nor is there any intention to change the way that surf clubs use the beach.”

Ultimately, he says, the “the aim is to improve safety on the beach by identifying concerns and responding with improved council lifeguard services and resources”.

Executive manager responsible for council’s lifeguard operations, Scott Field, said the survey was never meant to represent a proposal to ban surfing at Bondi Beach.

“This was never the intention of council and is at odds with the council’s unanimous resolution that requested a broader approach to this year’s review of beach safety and amenity,” Mr Field said.

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Surry Hills resident Maev Fitzpatrick, 34, is a regular at eastern beaches, surfing the southern breaks of Bondi and swimming down to Coogee in preparation for her upcoming crossing of the English Channel.

The Surfrider Foundation ambassador, who campaigns for the protection of our beaches, said she would be concerned if beginner surfers were banned from the northern end.

“There’s a huge difference in the surfing skill level required between the north end and south end of Bondi,” Ms Fitzpatrick said.

“Inexperienced surfers mostly use the north end as the wave is less dangerous. You’d be placing a greater number of surfers into an even smaller area, in more difficult surf conditions. It will heighten the risk of injuries to both inexperienced and experienced surfers.

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“It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction. Proper consultation should be undertaken with the appropriate bodies, such as National Surfing Reserve and Surfrider Foundation Australia, to look into alternative solutions before a ban is implemented.”

However, like Mr Falstein, Ms Fitzpatrick does believe there needs to be changes to the way the beach is managed. “People who regularly surf at Bondi know not to surf in between the flags, or even close to the flags,” she said.

“Bondi lifeguards should ensure that surfers on the north end understand not to use their boards near the flags or swimmers. Providing more instruction, safety training and observation of surfers and swimmers may help reduce the issue at the north end.”

With scrutiny over lifeguards it’s worth pointing out that they are simply following the current plan of management for Bondi beach, which states that lifeguards should take a “risk-based approach to monitoring flags” and respond to “breaches by surf craft … based on the level of risk of injury and available resources.”

The former Liberal mayor turned opposition councillor Sally Betts poured cold water on any suggestion the lifeguards weren’t adequately patrolling the beach.

“Our lifeguards would be some of the best in the world,” she says. “They are continually moving adults out from between the flags but they allow little children to use soft boards there.

“How can we tell little children you swim between the flags for safety but not in this circumstance?”

Cr Betts was scathing of Cr Wakefield who she blames for the negative national media coverage of the issue. And when asked why she and her fellow councillors voted in favour of the survey — which she says she was aware would cause an outcry — Cr Betts says they are tired of fighting for amendments to what she described as the mayor’s poorly thought out motions.

“We saw the problems but we thought, let him drown.”

And so just like the currents that have left many who alight onto Bondi with sand between their teeth after being unceremoniously dumped, the Liberal councillors left the mayor to flounder. Clearly a solution is needed to assuage swimmers and send a message to surfers to stick to the rules. Wakefield is confident he can find one. But with tensions riding high as ever at Waverley council there is every chance politicans will be making more waves around future local matters.

Complete the revised survey before August 17 at haveyoursaywaverley.com.au.

Published by Wentworth Courier – Wednesday, 25 July 2018