Surf lifesavers mark 50 years of nippers
Stephen Burn vividly remembers coming off MountMaunganui’s Main Beach as a frozen 5-year-old nipper, blue lips and shaking, and being treated to a deliciously hot, sugary cup of tea, dispensed in a giant ceramic teapot.
Cheryl Leuthart (nee Lawson), meanwhile, used to drag her feet on the way to nippers on a Sunday, hoping to avoid the soft-sand warm-up run down to the toilet block and back.
The pairwere able to reminisce over the weekend, as the Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service celebrated 50 years of running a nippers programme.
Burn was in the very first intake in 1968, while Leuthart joined up as an 11-year-old in 1975, the year girls were allowed in.
Amid the celebratory cake, the mayoral address, the ceremonial marchpast and the cacophony of this year’s nippers intake engaging in games, there was also a bit of irony.
Tea-loving Burn, it turns out, now owns a coffee business on Waiheke Island with wife Jane, while run-loathing Leuthart has turned into a trail-galloping guru.
Now living in New Plymouth, she coincided her trip back to the Mount with awin in the Taniwha half marathon along the Waikato River Trails on Saturday.
“Little did I know I’d actually grow to quite like running!” she laughed.
“Being in the nippers definitely put us in good stead, later in life. When Bob Mitchell was our coach, we’d spend hours standing at attention and at ease, with eyes on the horizon— they were mundane things but they taught us amazing discipline. Iwent on towin two New Zealand R&R titles and I guess I’m using that discipline inmy running now too.”
Mitchell was the pre-eminent figure in local nippers history— he andwife Shirleywere in Sydney on holiday in early 1968 when he went back to his old club, North Cronulla.
There, he saw some of the first Australian nippers in action and he vowed to bring the concept back to Mount Maunganui. The first club meeting was held on November 2, 1968 and attracted 41 boys, with Mitchell as president and John Burn— father of Stephen— secretary. Many of the founding members were wharfieswith young families.
Initial activities included pillow fights, tug-o-wars, musical flags, sack races and surfo-planes, while the first subscriptions cost 50 cents, plus $2.10 for togs. Mount’s innovation was quickly picked up by other clubs; the likes of Whakatane, Waimarama and Piha were quick to write to Burn asking for information on how to set up the programme, with an Auckland Nippers’ Championship held in 1970.
Sadly, Mitchell died in an accident on the wharf in 1978 but Burn Snr and Mitchell’s widow Shirley (now Youngman) were on hand to help celebrate on Sunday, along with another of Burn’s progeny, daughter Karen Kurtovich, who was also part of the 1975 girls’ intake.
“I guess you’ve got to say it’s achieved its purpose over those years,” John Burn said. “It’s provided a pathway through to senior surf lifesaving and provided a good bit of water sense and water safety.”
Those first Mount nippers also got to pioneer other surf lifesaving innovations. The club was one of the first in the country to introduce inflatable rescue boats for patrolling.
“There’s some really strange things as you age— I often forgetwhat I did yesterday but I can tell you the spark plug number for a Johnson outboard motor was an L77J4!” Leuthart said.
“And we could strip an engine down afterwe’d sunk it, empty all the sand and reinstate it within 12 minutes!” Stephen Burn added. “All those thingswe learned at such a young age— by the timewe were 14 and on patrol, we knew how the beach was working, where people were and how they could get into trouble and where the
safe swimming spots were. It was just instinctive.”
The pair were also there when the club rebuilt in 1978, backwhen Mount Maunganui was still a sleepy seaside town that only came alive for a few weeks over summer. That buildingwas demolished in April to make way for the fourth iteration of the clubhouse— a $3 million project which is expected to be finished early next year. Itwill cater for Tauranga’s booming population and the greater demands on lifeguards as first respondents, although another $200,000 is still needed to complete the project.
The public can donate at www.mountlifeguards.co.nz/donate.
Pioneering nippers Stephen Burn and Cheryl Leuthart celebrate with their 2018 counterparts, 50 years after the surf lifesaving programme began at the Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service.