Red Letter Days Down Under
60 years ago this week, L.A. County lifeguards changed the art of surfing and the science of ocean rescues forever
By Stephanie Case
In 1956, over 100,000 Australians swarmed a Sydney beach, eyes fixed on the waves. Three young Americans were out in the water, riding a newfangled contraption: the Malibu surfboard.
“They were just stunned,” says Bob Burnside, who, from atop his board, could see the horde of onlookers growing by the minute. “We’d take off, and as we maneuvered back and forth, carving the waves, I heard these huge crowd roars. … That was the start, really, of the history of surfing in Australia.”
It was a fateful moment, one that wouldn’t have happened if Burnside and his friends — all Los Angeles County lifeguards — hadn’t, on a whim, thrown their boards in with their luggage on their way to the world’s first international lifesaving competition.
This week marks 60 years since lifeguards from across the globe first converged in Australia, an event that revolutionized surfing and lifesaving worldwide.
Octogenarian David Ballinger remembers the historic trip Down Under like it was yesterday.
In 1953, he was a San Gabriel Valley teen with little competitive swim experience, hoping to earn a spot as an L.A. County lifeguard.
“One hundred and twenty guys showed up to take the test — a one-mile swim through big surf and cold water — and I came in second,” he marvels, laughing. “I was having so much fun that I didn’t realize I had knocked off all of these swimming champions from El Segundo and Long Beach.”
Lifeguarding each summer in Manhattan Beach opened up a new world to Ballinger.
“In Arcadia, I had grown up as an average kid in a pool,” he says. “Coming down to the South Bay as an inlander was like coming down to Mars. It was such a different world … the surfing, the beach girls, the lifestyle. I had never even seen beach volleyball before.”
Thirty miles north, Burnside, a recent college grad, was living rent-free on the edge of Zuma Beach and working full-time as a lifeguard there.
“We were the only emergency crew in upper Malibu at that time; there really were no paramedics,” Burnside says. On the job, he’d respond to highway accidents and boat rescues, sometimes diving through nasty, 15-foot surf to save lives.
Over in Australia, lifeguarding culture was similarly on the rise. Hundreds of volunteer clubs, all under the banner of the Australian Lifesaving Association, patrolled beaches across the country.
When the association decided to host its first international competition alongside the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics, an Australian delegate flew to Los Angeles to recruit an American team. Burnside and Ballinger were among a dozen young Southern California men who made the cut.
That November, the team ventured 7,500 miles in a propeller plane across the ocean. It was a grueling trip — halfway through, an engine fire forced them to make an emergency landing on a tiny Pacific island — but they eventually touched down in Sydney.
“When we walked out of the plane, they had a hundred-piece orchestra and band waiting for us, with a big red carpet, and they were playing ‘God Bless America,’” Ballinger remembers.
The team quickly realized Australia wasn’t too different from the California coast — both filled with sand, water and young people, all passionate about the beach.
“Meeting [the Australian team] … was like all of a sudden running across members of your family,” Burnside says.
Yet, from opposite sides of the Pacific, the teams had developed completely disparate techniques when it came to surfing and saving lives.
“They looked at [our surfboards] and said, ‘What the hell are you going to do with that?’ Burnside jokes.
Back then, the Australians rode on long, hollow, plywood boards and would go into each wave straight on.
“They couldn’t carve up a wave because there was no fin on their board,” Ballinger says.
Their lifesaving devices were just as different. While the Americans carried buoyant, aluminum rescue cans into the ocean — a tool to help keep a drowning victim afloat — the Australians used a comparatively antiquated rescue reel.
“It looked like a fishing reel, but very large and wooden, and three feet tall, with 100 yards or more of line rolled around it,” says Burnside. One man would tie a belt around his waist, then dive into the water, towing the line with him. When he grabbed ahold of the victim, a pack of lifeguards on the beach would use their strength to tow both of them back.
The contrast between the teams inspired them both to grow and adapt. Over the next decade, the Australians swapped out their reels for rescue cans and picked up modern surfing. The U.S. team, for their part, developed a national organization modeled after the Australian Lifesaving Association to unite local lifeguards across the states.
Today, the United States Lifesaving Association, founded by Burnside, has thousands of members, national training standards and annual championships. Each local group uses the “Burnside buoy” — the iconic bright red plastic can Burnside dreamed up and manufactured in the 1960s — as a rescue device.
Burnside has taken his work internationally; in recent years, he helped form Club Tortuga, a band of lifeguards (called “salvavidas”) in Oaxaca, Mexico, who are fighting to end drowning deaths on the shores of Puerto Escondido.
“[Lifeguarding] has been my whole life, and having been a part of it from the beginning — at the early pioneering days — to me, is extremely satisfying,” says Burnside, now 85.
Ballinger, for his part, left the profession behind decades ago, but he counts his years as an Arcadia pool kid-turned-international lifesaver as some of his best.
“I’m 82 years old, and whenever I sit down with a group for dinner conversation, nobody wants to hear about my career as a stockbroker,” Ballinger laughs. “What they want to hear about is my experience being a lifeguard, all the rescues I made — and especially about going down to Australia.”