Lifestyle & Belief

Australian surf lifesaving under scrutiny after death of 3rd teenager in competition


Search for missing Maroochydore SLSC competitor Matthew Barclay resumes at Kurrawa Beach on March 29, 2012 on the Gold Coast, Australia.


Matt Roberts

Australian surf lifesaving in mourning — calls for legal action mounting — after a teenager became the third lifesaver to die while competing in the national titles on Queensland's Gold Coast.

The body of Matthew Barclay, 14, was found on Thursday morning a mile north of where he disappeared late Wednesday while competing in a board race in the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships at Kurrawa Beach.

Barclay was the third young lifesaver to die in recent years at the national titles, in which the country's elite surf lifesavers compete.

Saxon Bird, 19, drowned at Kurrawa in 2010 after being hit by another competitor's surf ski.

And Robert Gatenby, 15, drowned at the 1996 titles at Kurrawa, held despite a cyclone (hurricane) hovering just off the Queensland coast.

Lawyer Chris Branson, who represented the Bird family at a coronial inquest, told Sky news that it was clear Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) had learned nothing from the Bird and Gatenby deaths.

He said future competitions at Kurrawa should be banned, and there must be a royal commission.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, meantime, wrote that SLSA officials had also been criticized for poor decision making and consultation about surf conditions, a lack of safety devices for competitors, and too little emphasis on water safety. 

The use of lightweight helmets, floatation devices and leg ropes — used by surfboard riders but not by surf lifesavers paddling rescue boards — had been suggested but never introduced.

According to the Brisbane Times, Barclay's death was likely to trigger at least three investigations.

SLSA chief executive Brett Williamson said events at the national titles, suspended Thursday, would resume Friday at nearby Kirra beach. 

Williamson said there had been no concerns about surf conditions before Wednesday's tragedy, and the association was cooperating with a police investigation.

According to Sky News, he would not comment on reports Barclay was involved in a collision in the surf.

He said no firm decision had been made on whether Kurrawa — described by some as a dangerous beach — should be used for future events.

"We'll look at that issue, or that aspect, in the fullness of all the information. We need to make sure we have all the facts on the table," he reportedly said.

Bird's sister, Arielle, told Sky that Kurrawa was a "tricky" beach and that the event should be moved.

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Williamson, admitted the organization was in crisis after the loss of Matthew Barclay, but defended its practices.

"We're reviewing the event every year," he said. "I doubt very much there'd be a suggestion that we don't hold Australian Surf Lifesaving Championships," Mr Williamson said.

He said all but one of the recommendations of the Coroner's report into the death of Saxon Bird had been implemented, mandatory floatation devices being the exception.

Meanwhile, tributes were held for Barclay at several surf lifesaving clubs along the Queensland Coast on Thursday evening, including his own — the Maroochydore club north of Brisbane.

"I guess the comfort we take is that now Matty Barclay is frozen in time," The Australian quoted club life member Ralph Devlin as saying. "He's frozen in time as a beautiful young boy."

Devlin said Matthew had "absolutely died doing what he loved."

"He set high standards for himself and he died doing what he loved and his parents fully understand that. They've been very brave and only in the last hour or so, they've been reunited with their son."

Barclay's parents, Steve and Donna, and 12-year-old sister, had earlier been taken to the Gold Coast water police base at Southport where the young lifesaver's body was taken by boat.

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