Nippers – a truly Australian institution

December 1, 2017

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.









I have just been to Nippers. Before you jump to conclusions and assume I’ve been off for a quick Antipodean nip and tuck, I will enlighten you.

Nippers has been going for years. It is an old, truly Australian institution and it is run by the beach lifeguards. It has long been an tradition to teach children to be able to keep safe in the treacherous sea water which surrounds the huge Australian continent. Knowing that the main density of Australia’s population is nestled around its coast, it is imperative that the little “nippers“ learn not only to swim, but how to recognise rips, currents and other untold nasties like sharks and killer jellyfish. Beautiful though the sea is, it needs to be respected.


No doubt, at some time or another you may have caught a glimpse on the telly of those glorious young men at Bondi in their red and yellow uniforms, bronzed and ripped with powerful arms. You can’t really miss them, well I can’t and my mouth drops open in amazement at their prowess.

My little grandson at the great age of 5 now qualifies for Nippers.
NippersSo it was on  the first official weekend of summer in Australia, hundreds of little boys and girls meet up at their local beach to join Nippers. It was my great pleasure to watch the the “newy ” (everything has a Y in Australia!) experience their first fun lessons on the beach.
The kids are divided up by age and sex. Men are men in Australia and girls are Sheila’s! Every child wears a swim  cap, and  wise mothers also put them in a brilliant pink singlet so you can identify them with as much ease as is humanly possible. Our local  beach is about three miles long. On the day I was there there were about 600 hundred children on the beach. Pretty well every child looking identical – how the mothers identify them I just don’t know.
NippersThe  new  over fives  were divided up into four groups. Christian name are written on their caps and one of the first things that the children learn is they HAVE to wear their caps.

The entire ethos is organised so that the children learn through games. As I watched  from a distance, (I had already walked from the clubhouse down to the beach) the children started to head down in long lines. Each one touching the shoulder of the child in front. They looked little ants snaking down to the beach, all perfectly in order and every one with a cap on. It had all of the precision of Trooping the Colour, the only difference being there were no bearskins – only bare skins. Sorry, I do love a pun!

Naturally I was watching the beginners but I was amazed to see the confidence and capabilities of nine and ten year olds. Four years of being a nipper and they were all strong swimmers. They understood the dangers, could identify a rip, and were adept at lifesaving on the boards.

One of the first things that children learn is how to get into and out of the water fast. The secret is to lift your knees up high as you run.  Next time you see a rescue, watch how the guards rush into the water – high stepping and then diving into the surf. for the children of course it is all a game. “Newy” kids were started off in a lovely big rock pool where the water was only about eighteen inches deep. They ran out in pairs, racing each other and round a marker point, usually a willing parent, and back to the beach prancing and high stepping like little ponies. The game the kids seemed to love the most was called “hoses.”  A large square was marked out in the sand and about ten-pieces of hose pipe were planted in the sand. The kids then had to run as fast as they could from the starting point and dive onto the hose rugby style and run back, and touch the next member of their relay team. Meanwhile a willing band of mums and dads replaced the hoses and so it went on. I can’t tell you what a wonderful game this is for over-testosteroned little boys on a Sunday morning – it makes them really chilled out for Sunday afternoon. Heaven!

My son, father of my little grand nipper, has decided to throw himself headlong, literally, and learn to be a life saver. I am so pleased that he is embracing the culture of his new homeland. Not only is his own son enjoying his nipper experience more because his dad is there, but also my son is loving it. He says he is so impressed with the  organisation, the teamwork and their interactive skills.

The training is tough, obviously you have to be a good and strong swimmer, you have to be fit, as you have to be able to run fast on sand, swim fast and, having battled through the waves, be able to run again… possibly carrying a body!  You also need to have good eyesight as most of the commands are visual, and often at long distances.

The commitment amongst the lifeguards is total and the learning process for my son, both practical and theory, will be learnt all over the summer months. So far, in four weeks, my son has learnt how to treat spinal injuries, heart attacks, broken legs and anaphylactic seizure. He is getting fitter by the minute, and learning how to manoeuvre the rescue boats and get bodies out of the water and on to a board when they are unconscious. Added to that, every Sunday he enjoys watching his son grow in confidencevand swell with pride because his daddy is one of the life savers.

I too am very proud that my son has elected to spend his hard earned leisure time learning a skill which may one day make a very big difference, to someone, some family, or even himself.

If you are ever lucky enough to go to one of the Australian beaches look out to sea. Look at the ferocity of those waves. I for one never get tired of watching the sea but I have a healthy respect for it. Last week I had an absolute treat. I saw two whales breaching – not something I had ever seen before – the enormous creatures leapt out of the water and thrashed their tails with a thunderous splat sending spray high into the air. I have to say I was rather glad I was on the beach…

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