One sunny day back in 1958 at The Entrance Beach on the scenic Central Coast a rookie 16-year-old volunteered for his first ever patrol. Six decades down the line and Col Laing is still on duty watching the surf and those within it with an experienced eye.
When the 2018/19 Patrol Season dawned in late September Laing clocked on for his 60th straight season in the red and yellow as an active patroller, an achievement believed to be a first in the distinguished history of the Surf Life Saving movement.
In a wide-ranging interview SLSNSW recently had the pleasure of talking to the veteran surf lifesaver about his experiences within the movement, with Laing happy to reflect on what he calls one of his great passions in life.
“Like nearly everyone else my age living on the Central Coast I grew up playing rugby league in the winter and going to the beach in summer, and after I turned 16 and left school I went and joined The Entrance Surf Club where I qualified for my Bronze Medallion in 1958.
“I started patrolling and competing in boats which were the start of what would turn to be my heavy involvement with Surf Life Saving,” Col Laing said.
Over the years Col would maintain a healthy interest in surf sport, throw his hat into administration, and would be involved as a board examiner.
If ever there was a job around the club that needed doing invariably he would be there, but ultimately it was the role of coach and mentor that seemed to be a natural fit.
“I love the continuity of Surf Life Saving,” enthused Laing.
“Over the years at both my clubs I coached a lot of very talented kids with some going on to achieve success at a State and National Level and now they bring their own families down to Nippers. It’s a full circle.”
Family is a constant theme in Laing’s life and the lure of the water runs strong within his own family after Col introduced his children to the club environment.
Today his grandchildren too are proudly continuing on the tradition.
His son is back on patrol this season and his youngest grandchild is in the process of qualifying for their Surf Rescue Certificate, but there is one person he certainly wants to heap praise on; his wife Lorraine.
“I couldn’t do this without her total support. She has always been heavily involved with the club even in the years before women could officially join and is as passionate about the surf as I am.
“In fact I think that’s arguably the most positive change I have seen was allowing women to become full members and to compete in sport. Women have and always had a big role to play in lifesaving even if it took so long to be formalised, and without their participation I think a lot of the smaller clubs including us here at North Entrance would cease to exist,” he said.
Given the pivotal role that he played in the formation of North Entrance SLSC it would be wise to heed his words on the matter.
Col was one of several local surf lifesavers advocating for the establishment of a club at the northern end of the beach, served as its foundation president, and was there on patrol for its first ever shift on February 1st 1977.
“It was really apparent to us that we needed to have a surf club based on that end of the beach. Sadly we had few drownings and a lot of rescues and used to have to throw the reel into the car and drive up there which was time consuming in an emergency situation.
“We were lucky as we managed to get the support of the other clubs on the coast. There’s a great deal of comradery among us and with about 12 club members (from The Entrance SLSC) living on the north side of the suburb we had the foundations of a solid club,” he said.
As North Entrance’s original president Col found himself in a rare position of being able to shape the direction of the club.
It did however come with a downside.
“I think I spent a decade in meetings during the 1970s and 80s,” he laughed.
“They were never on the same night either which is why the family and I used to holiday in winter because getting away in summer was just about impossible.”
Col’s commitment to lifesaving and his community has been recognised many times over the years.
He gained Life Membership at The Entrance SLSC in 1975, North Entrance SLSC in 1988, and for the Central Coast Branch in 2009.
In 2016 he was elevated to Life Member for SLSNSW and is recipient of the centenary medal for his work in the Wyong Shire.
As a man who has spent quite literally decades on patrol he has seen many changes in Surf Life Saving in particular to the types of rescue equipment used.
His experiences stretch back to incorporate almost the entire history of the movement as he was trained by mentors who were involved in lifesaving’s formative years.
Passing on this accumulated knowledge gained from a lifetime around the ocean is a responsibility he takes seriously.
“The movement has come so far especially in things like the way we perform resuscitation techniques. In my time I’ve gone from using the reel to seeing the introduction of the IRB, and now we even have drones flying in the air!
“There are certainly challenges that the movement will face in regards to keeping members. Teenagers and young adults have so many choices in sport now and other commitments on their time.
“Lifesaving teaches you skills for life and you never know when they will be needed. The opportunities and friendships you make in this movement are incredibly important.
“That is why I encourage all kids to join a surf club and it doesn’t even matter if it’s not ours.”
The passion and conviction in Col’s voice is evident when he speaks about his love of Surf Life Saving and you wonder if that 16-year-old teenager who turned up for his first patrol had any inkling of the journey that lay ahead.
“Definitely not,” he laughs, “as a kid I couldn’t imagine standing on the same beach doing my patrols 60 years later. I’ve made some wonderful friends and had some great experiences.”
And just how long can the beachgoers of The Entrance expect to be under his watchful eye?
“I want to keep doing it for as long as I am physically able to do so and pass the proficiencies and qualifications. Right now I am still competing in competition and am contributing to my patrol so I feel like I can still make a difference.”
It was a lucky break for Surf Life Saving when Col Laing signed on all those years ago and it’s fair to say that the legacy like the accumulated patrol hours of this well-respected member will continue to grow.
Wednesday 21 November 2018