Three Clubs, 60 Summers, Lifetime Of Memories

It’s a universal truth that all good things eventually do come to an end and after 60 summers of patrolling the beaches of Coogee, Collaroy and Crowdy Head the time has come for John Ward to hang up his lifesaving cap.

John Ward provides a tangible connection to the history of lifesaving having been trained and assessed by those who learned their craft from the pioneering names within the movement.

As one of the custodians of lifesaving knowledge he feels it is important to share his experiences and knowledge with a new generation.

Like many club members who have achieved such longevity within the Surf Life Saving ranks the yarns that John could tell would fill multiple volumes.

As a child growing up in Sydney’s East with the shadow of War still fresh in the city’s memory joining a Surf Club was never really on a young John’s radar.

“Like most of my friends I played sport and enjoyed the social side of it,” John Ward said.

“I grew up playing rugby and water polo and I was a pretty handy swimmer. I did a lot of swimming at Coogee Swim Club where I was a member, but really I had never even considered joining a surf club.”

His aptitude in the water did not go unnoticed for long.

Summer 1955 was hot – so much so that a 16-year-old John was putting in plenty of hours in the pool alongside a group of friends. It wasn’t long before his obvious talents caught the eye of an interested patron.

That man turned out to be Ron Day who at the time was the Chief Instructor of Coogee Surf Club and was in the process of trying to put together a Junior R’&’R team.

In short order John, Tom Nickson, Ross Hardy, Peter Jospe, and John Cunningham were in a squad training for their Bronze Medallion under the watchful eye of Tony Farthing.

Within a month the group were confident in their ability to handle the surf, but judgment day would have to wait with 7 squads from across Sydney Branch being held back to participate in a carnival type event on Christmas Eve as part of a wider exhibition.

“There was a fair on grasslands from memory and I think the organisers wanted to show off the skills of the local lifesavers. Conditions were awful; it was really breaking up and quite heavy surf. I actually heard one of the examiners asking another one if they’d put the buoys out too far,” Ward said.

“The other man’s answer was well let the Coogee kid have a go he’s a good belt swimmer. So I was first in the water and my only instruction was I was told not to beat the patient to the buoy. I turned around when I got out there and he was still floundering in the surf – they moved the buoys in after that!”

The Bronze Medallion safely acquired, John’s interest and involvement in Surf Life Saving began to intensify.

Throughout the 1960s he won four successive club championships where you had to accrue points over two swims and two belt races and regularly competed at club and state carnivals.

In 1971 he shifted to Collaroy where he would remain on patrol and compete for the next 30 seasons.

As part of the club’s all conquering March Past team he would win medals at State and National level. The introduction of a Masters competition reignited a passion to race within him and he won 17 of the club’s first 20 Master Championships and was crowned club champion as well.

Collaroy’s innovative approach to new ideas indirectly led him to his third and final club.

“Every year Collaroy hosted a Masters Championship type carnival and a boat crew from Crowdy Head used to come down with a couple of other athletes. When the opportunity to move for work came up in 2001 and because I wanted to stay involved in Surf Life Saving the club seemed a natural fit,” Ward said.

A natural fit it may have been, but for a man used to hustle and bustle of Sydney it was quite a culture shock.

“When I joined I thought what have I got into here as there didn’t seem to be enough people to operate. The club has fantastic leadership though and gets things done in the way that Country Clubs always do. In recent years there has been a push to get parents of the Junior Activities Group qualified and make them part of the Surf Life Saving family.”

Experience tells Ward though that those challenges aren’t going to go away.

“Junior numbers aren’t a problem. It’s when kids get older and leave home because there isn’t a lot of work and educational opportunities around here. You don’t begrudge them that opportunity but it’s an issue we really have to look at.”

As one of the older members of the club he enjoys passing his experience onto younger members and is perfectly placed to comment on some of the changes within Surf Life Saving.

“I’ve never been shy about putting my opinions out there. I enjoy sharing my knowledge and I think some of the advances in lifesaving equipment have been absolutely fantastic. I recall my first rescue and going out at Coogee in challenging conditions to rescue a girl while wearing a surf belt. You had to be really fit to do that so the equipment has definitely changed for the better.

“One of the things that I think has been lost in recent years is that sense of team work. We used to always travel in the back of a truck to competitions and everybody hung around to watch. People don’t do that anymore they tend to do their own thing.”

Although these days John is a proud Crowdy Head Member which includes winning a State Masters Rescue Tube Rescue title in the Over 65s he hasn’t forgotten his roots becoming actively involved in celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of both Coogee and Collaroy, and regularly keeping in contact with his many mates at both clubs.

Like many Coogee old boys he was saddened by the damage to their iconic clubhouse caused by the recent storms but has no doubt they will bounce back.

It is this loyalty that makes him a valued member of the community no matter where he finds himself. “John is a fantastic club man who does so much work that he thinks is unnoticed, but I can assure you it isn’t,” said Crowdy Head President Al Davis.

“He does so much work fundraising for the club and is generous with his time and knowledge. We’re very fortunate to have him patrol on our beach for the last 15 seasons and I hope he continues to be involved within the Surf Life Saving Family.”

Davis needn’t worry.

Although his patrolling days are over, the man himself has no intention of going cold turkey just yet.

“I still want to help out with the fundraising where I can and I’ve probably got a year or two as an official in me. I didn’t get my badge until I reached 50 years so I think I can do another Country Championship although State and Aussies are probably beyond me.

“The other thing I would like to do is help revive the Sunday swimming race that was a regular event when I first moved here.”

His more immediate plans involve travelling both at home and abroad and catching up with friends and family.

From the boy who never dreamed of becoming a lifesaver to a man who has spent 6 decades wearing the iconic red and yellow, John Ward’s journey in lifesaving has been an extraordinary adventure.

“For me personally I have got so much out of Surf Life Saving the friendships I have made and the people you meet along with all the fantastic memories is what makes it worthwhile. I think 60 years is a nice round number to finish up with.”

Yes it is.

Photograph - John Ward keeps an eye on patrol proceedings at Crowdy Head SLSC (top). Below a young Ward is pictured with a surf belt while a member of Coogee. It was around this time that the photograph that would eventually be chosen to adorn the front page of Coogee's 100th anniversary book was taken.

Thu 7 Jul 2016