Call for Margaret River fast-response surf capability

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
Bec Sheedy.
Camera IconBec Sheedy. Credit: Russell Ord

Population growth and international marketing of the Margaret River region mean it is time to properly consider coastal safety across the Capes, a host of local water safety professionals have told the Times.

The call comes with tragic timing after news earlier this month of a Perth father who drowned in rough water in Yallingup, just an hour after lifeguards finished for the day.

Capes heavy water rescue trainer Shanan Worall from Shark Eyes told the Times he remained “flabbergasted” the Margaret River region’s beaches lacked a dedicated, ready-to-roll jetski-led rescue service.

Similar destinations in Hawaii had topnotch rescue teams ready to roll the moment a surfer, windsurfer or tourist got in trouble, Mr Worall said.

“It blows me away that this is not the case here in WA,” he said.

“Margaret River is known as the big-wave capital of Australia.”

While Surf Life Saving WA had contracts to patrol Rivermouth in Margaret River and Smiths Beach, Yallingup, Bunker Bay and Meelup, those services didn’t have jetskis ready to go into the water in the event of a major incident.

“Without a jetski, it’s really just about body retrieval,” Mr Worall told the Times.

Professional surf coach Bec Sheedy said too many tourists were lured to the region’s beloved beaches, but glossy brochures didn’t always adequately highlight the risks they faced.

“Having surfed and surf-coached continuously in the area for over two decades, I have been involved in, and exposed to, countless surf and swimming-related community rescues,” she said.

“Lately, I have become acutely aware of how minimal the surf safety set up is between the Capes.”

Ms Sheedy said she often worked Redgate Beach, which was a notorious spot which included the tragic double fatality of Perth man Kane Nelson, 22, who died trying to save his American friend and qualified doctor Ian Vincent, 31, in 2012.

Back in 2013, the Times reported calls for urgent intervention at Redgate after surfers said they were regularly forced to save visitors from drowning.

But again this week, site managers the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions pointed to warning signs as their best effort to prevent deaths.

Ms Sheedy said authorities had to do more than erect signs and offer pamphlets if tourism continued to grow.

The growth of surfing as a sport itself spurred the need for active rescue capacity, but instead surfers were increasingly relied on in case of emergencies, she said.

“In reality, in an incident it’s about how fast can you get to the person,” Ms Sheedy told the Times.

“There’s been numerous incidents at the Point where there’s been fins severing arteries too.”

Ms Sheedy’s calls were echoed by Yallingup Surf School owner Crystal Wallace, who said big conditions near Rabbits surf break on October 1 would have challenged experienced surfers, let alone the man in his 50s who drowned after swimming out to his teenage sons.

Authorities reported the Morley man “had no real swimming experience”.

Surf schools were accustomed to filling in as a de facto rescue services along the coast, Ms Wallace said.

“Just on Friday we moved two families who had no idea they were swimming out into a rip,” she said. “It can happen so quickly.”


Dr Dennis Millard, who heads up WA’s Surfing Doctors program and teaches as part of Mr Worall’s Shark Eyes program, said he was motivated to train recreational surfers because of their need for self-reliance without formal back-up across the region.

Margaret River-based international surf photographer and former firefighter Russell Ord — who trains local surfers in breath-holding techniques crucial during emergencies — also said more capability was needed because formal lifeguards had strict areas in which they were permitted to patrol.

Mr Worall said even lifeguards at Rivermouth had to retrieve their jetski from a storage shed, limiting their potential in any fast-rescue situation.

Dr Millard said having jetskis at the ready “seems sensible”.

“Big-wave surfing, both in the paddle-in and towing styles, have gained popularity hugely over the past 10 years, and it’s getting pretty busy in the line-up out at Boat Ramps (surf break) nowadays,” he told the Times.

“Having well-trained guys available to assist on these days would seem like a good idea to me.”

Mr Worall said the training he offered in heavy-water rescue was increasingly aimed at building a community of skilled surfers, but it was time for local governments and the State to get involved.

However, agencies declined to bite on that call.

Bunbury-based Fisheries Minister Don Punch deferred questions to the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, which listed past State Government support for programs and little about new future plans.

While helicopter patrols and the sporadic Surfers Rescue 365 program were welcomed, all those who spoke to the Times said drones and jetskis were needed at more than just the Margaret River Pro.

The Shire of Augusta-Margaret River said it was in discussion with surfers and Surf Life Saving WA about that service gap — and Warren-Blackwood MLA Jane Kelsbie had also spoken with concerned surfers — but nothing solid was in the pipeline yet.

A DBCA spokesperson told the Times it continually monitored safety risks at its beaches.

“In areas such as Redgate Beach where there have been past incidents, prominent site-specific safety signage warns visitors of risks including rips, large waves, slippery rocks and sharks,” they said.

“DBCA works closely with local State Emergency Services and ambulance services and has provided them with access keys to areas that have locked gates.

“Beachgoers can find a patrolled beach by visiting Surf Life Saving Australia’s Beachsafe website.”


Ms Sheedy said confused and overlapping areas of responsibility between State departments and local government kept the safety issue in limbo.

She was frustrated at years of inaction and wondered what else needed to occur before authorities took full responsibility for public safety in the water while fostering more and more people to come to the region.

“Nothing’s changed in terms of safety for the past 20 years,” she said.

“Come to our beautiful place — but it’s notorious and gnarly.

“How can you promote it so heavily and not cater to that other side?”

The Margaret River-Busselton Tourism Association said it understood the need to provide accurate information for visitors to make safe choices.

“When it comes to choosing whether or not to swim at an unfamiliar beach, clear signage alerting visitors to hazards is key for their safety,” chief executive Sharna Kearney said.

“We proactively share details of safety concerns and environmental and cultural sensitivities at particular sites.

“In the case of Redgate Beach, our website warns that this is an unpatrolled beach, that lives have been lost there, and that dangerous rips can occur.”

Tourists were directed to patrolled beaches in summer and urged to use the online information available, she said.

“Not every beach across the region can be patrolled, so in these instances, it needs to be about equipping people with the right information so they can make safe choices,” Ms Kearney said.

Margaret River Coastal Residents Association, and protest groups Save Smiths Beach and Preserve Gnarabup have already highlighted the increased pressure on beaches likely to come from population growth and resort developments at Gnarabup and Yallingup.

While Smiths Beach Surf Life Saving Club will receive upgraded clubrooms in the Yallingup project, future rescue capacity remains unknown.

A Surf Life Saving WA spokesperson said it was aware of “conversations about response services in the region”.

“As always, SLSWA will advocate for improved coastal safety and are happy to work with any local community to understand the need and the resources available that may best meet this agreed need,” the spokesperson said.

Augusta-Margaret River Shire corporate and community development director James Shepherd said SLSWA was involved in further talks.

“Determining how and where a rapid-response jetski may be best located to service the coast is ongoing,” he said.

Acting City of Busselton chief executive Oliver Darby said in the wake of last fortnight’s Yallingup drowning, City and State-funded beach patrols and helicopters were best placed to offer crucial protection.

But even the cost of lifeguard contracts had risen “dramatically” since 2016, he said.

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