Bronte Surf Life Saver: Emma Finnerty

It’s no secret that swimmers are very parochial about the places they swim in Sydney. Emma Finnerty, 38, is no exception. A Bronte local, she is Treasurer of the Bronte Splashers Winter Swim Club and has been a volunteer lifesaver at Bronte Beach for six years. We chat to her about the community, swimming in the winter and wearing two caps to brace the cold.

by Caroline Clements & Dillon Seitchik-Reardon


PWS: You’re a lifesaver, not a lifeguard - what’s the difference?
EF: That’s right, lifesavers are the volunteers in yellow and red, and we’re just patrolling on the weekends and public holidays. Lifeguards are employed by the council and their colours are different depending on the region. In Waverley it’s blue. You need to watch Bondi Rescue!

PWS: What sort of training do you need to become a volunteer lifesaver?
EF: You do your Bronze Medallion, and that’s a six weeks course - theory and practical. But there is ongoing training you can do. There’s Silver and Gold Medallion, advanced resuscitation training, aquatic beach, beach management, aquatic rescue, boat drivers certificate, so there is all sorts of training you can do.

PWS: Why do you think people are so passionate about their surf lifesaving club?
EF: It’s a community organisation and there is an opportunity for everyone to be involved. You can become a trainer if education is you thing, if administration is your thing, there is plenty you can do, if you have kids and you want to be involved, you can support the nippers. It’s definitely dynamic in that way and inclusive of all ages. You can go through the club from under five to life member status.

The surf club is also an important dimension of how people come to get that sense of belonging and ownership of a beach. We all walk around with our beach on backside. It’s very tribal, but in a good way.

PWS: So is Bronte the first surf life saving club in Australia?
EF: Yes, but it is fiercely contested with Bondi. Bondi started in 1908 and we were 1903, so we’re clearly older (smiles). It still seems to come up for debate about what constituted the initial first surf life saving meeting - it’s just as contested as the oldest pub in Australia status. ‘Bronte First’ is our on our club flag, so we’ve got it.

PWS: How different is the culture at each club?
EF: The same. You’ve got the older groups, the nippers, the nipper parents, the competitors, the rubber ducky team. You have ocean swimmers, and people who literally come down at the same time every day, dive in and get out and go home. You’ve got the people who just hang out, you’ve got the people who run the club and never seem to go home.

PWS: What about the pool and swim clubs?
EF: In the swimming club there are at least four clubs. I am in the Bronte Splashers Winter Swimming Club (and also the Treasurer). We are the oldest winter swimming club in the world (coming up to 100 years in 2021), so another first for Bronte. We swim only in winter. There is also a Summer Swimming Club, an RSL Swimming Club and there is Doctor Bronte, a group of older men who meet because swimming heals their ailments.

We all walk around with our beach on backside. It’s very tribal, but in a good way.

PWS: Why do you choose the winter swimming club?
EF: Winter swimming started as a way for the lifesaver from summer to keep fit over winter and winter is actually nicer at the beach; it’s quieter, the water quality is better.

PWS: Do you still have the save responsibilities as a lifesaver during winter?
EF: We have duty of care but we don’t run lifesaving during the winter. Formal patrols go from end of September to end of April. It’s a fairly long season.

PWS: How often does the club swim during winter?
EF: Every Sunday for a couple of hours, and that’s all ages.

PWS: Is that no wetsuits?
EF: Absolutely, that is no wetsuits.

PWS: Caps?
EF: Two caps even, if it’s really cold. If it gets below 13 degrees (celsius), people pull out the two-cap routine. The coldest it gets is 12-13 degrees, and that’s only for a little while, it’s all about the currents.


PWS: Why do think people are so connected to swimming in Australia?
EF: Something amazing happens in the water and it’s a feeling people want to share with each other, even strangers. Often when we swim we’re searching to catch someone’s eye for acknowledgement of this. The water is a place of joy…a place of acceptance and understanding.

PWS: Do you swim every day?
EF: Yes, twice a day, morning and night. Swimming, paddling, surfing, in the boat, in the pool. All the time. Sometimes I’ll train for events over Cronulla or in Manly with the Bold and the Beautiful ocean swimmers.

PWS: How much of your personal community comes from this beach culture and lifesaving?
EF: A big proportion. Part of it is that it’s so easy, you just turn up and your friends are there and you know it will be fun.

We are so lucky to live here. That’s part of the payback for volunteer lifesavers - we want to give back to others so they can be safe at the beach, and have a good experience.