24 Oct 2015

'You've got to have a moral compass'

8:27 am on 24 October 2015

One single day is forever etched on the mind of Muriwai lifeguard Stephen Butt.

It's February 27, 2013. Film-maker Adam Strange, 46, was in the sea training for the Auckland Central Masters swim. But he never made it out alive.

Watch Stephen Butt and other lifeguards at Muriwai

The attack by a shark, thought to be four metres long, was something Mr Butt thought could never happen in the waters he grew up in.

"To me that was just crazy, that was absolute one off, it was an absolute freak of a thing."

Muriwai Beach

Muriwai Beach Photo: RNZ/ Kim Baker Wilson

I had asked Mr Butt what the scariest thing he'd ever dealt with on the beach was, and the answer came after a long pause and some quiet reflection.

"It was quite a shocking thing... I never expected it to happen, I don't think anyone did out here."

Mr Butt is one of almost 2,000 lifeguards across 17 clubs who will take to the country's northern beaches from Northland to Raglan this summer.

Their patrols on those beaches start today.

Lifeguards will battle bigger waves and more rips this summer because of strong El Niño conditions, that were also expected to bring long and hot weather.

That in itself was expected to send more people flocking to the water, but Auckland's growing population was also adding to the number of rescues.

Mr Butt, 21, said Muriwai was dangerous and a lot of people didn't realise how deadly it could be. People "not respecting" the conditions was something that frustrates him.

"They just think they can get out there and do anything and it's really not the case, they've got be aware of themselves and what's going on around them."

He grew up on the black sands of this west coast beach.

"I got into the surf club out here when I was about four or five.

"I just really enjoy the beach, I love the place we're standing on here... It's an easy way to sort of give back to the community," he said.

Lifeguards rush out to the sea

Lifeguards rush out to the sea Photo: RNZ/ Kim Baker Wilson

Nationwide, 15 people died on beaches during the first half of this year, a sizable leap from six during the same time in 2014.

The cruel reality is that lifesavers can't save every life, and death was something Mr Butt said they have to know how to deal with.

"It's expected, we expect that coming into this. We've got a lot of training around it so we sort of know how to deal with the situation hopefully.

"Last summer up north a few (deaths) happened, that was a bit of a shock for a few of my friends... quite often it's the same people who have to deal with a few in a row."

The will to protect people in the water was something that ran in Mr Butt's family. His older brother David is the lifesaving manager overseeing the northern beaches.

Lifesavers look out into the ocean at Muriwai Beach on Auckland's west coast.

Lifesavers look out into the ocean at Muriwai Beach on Auckland's west coast. Photo: RNZ/ Kim Baker Wilson

In an understated way, Mr Butt said his family were "just" volunteers.

He still lives just 10 minutes away from the water, and said a good lifeguard was just like any other volunteer.

"Someone who enjoys the beach, whatever beach it may be, and someone who cares about other people.

"It's like anything, like a volunteer firefighter, you've got to have a moral compass," he said.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs