Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Oral histories 2015: 50 years with the Woolamai Surf Life Saving Club with Graeme Clauscen

Last updated on 27-Apr-22

This talk is one of 17 talks broadcast on South Gippsland community radio station 3MFM during 2014 and 2015 with the assistance of a Local History Grant from the Public Records Office of Victoria.


My name is Graeme Clauscen. I joined the Woolamai Beach Surf Life Saving Club in the 1960-61 season. I’m a Life Member, and the club’s historian.


The Woolamai club was founded by three life savers from Apollo Bay – Norman Ritchie, Gerry Tanner and Maurice Walsh. They wanted a club closer to Melbourne so they decided to come to Phillip Island and start a new one. On the 26th July 1959 a public meeting was held at Cowes to form the club and Mr E E (Ted) Jeffrey, Shire President, was elected our first president.


My brother Trevor became involved with the club, gained his bronze medallion and started patrols. Sometime later both I and our father Ted joined as Associate Members. Dad went on to serve seven terms as president. I attended the 1960-61 AGM just out of interest and was elected as treasurer – or should I say ‘hijacked’! In 1962-63 I was elected secretary and served for eight years. From that time up until 1998 I spent 21 years as a committee member, including one term as president.


Around this time the family seemed to be spending a lot of time driving to Phillip Island and back. My parents decided we needed somewhere to stay and bought an old fishing shack in San Remo – but that’s another story.


During my first term as secretary a black foolscap folder fell into my possession. It contained early press cuttings, and that was the beginning of my collection of historical items relating to the club.


Over the years Woolamai has been a leader in a number of areas of surf life saving. In 1963 we started swimming classes for local Phillip Island and San Remo children. We were one of the first clubs in Victoria to do so. The early classes, called The Penguins, attracted about 10-12 children. In 2013 we celebrated 50 years of teaching children to swim. The whole movement has grown with all surf clubs involved and is now known as “The Nippers”. In the 2014-15 season we had 450 enrolments for The Nippers program.


In the early 1960s there was growing feeling between the “Clubbies” – Surf Club Members - and the “Boardies” – surf board riders, particularly if board riders were riding the waves in the patrolled area. In 1963 we hosted the first surf board riding competition run by Surf Life Saving Victoria, to try and get better co-operation between these groups; and it worked. Terry Klemm a Phillip Island surfer, placed third in the senior men’s division. His pennant now hangs in the club house.


Around this time 3 members of the Club were in San Remo were in San Remo when a young local lad jumped of the Pier and got into difficulties. Our members were nearby ad were able to revive him using Mouth to Mouth, a technique rececently introduced into surf life saving. We believe this to be the first occasion that Mouth to Mouth was successfully used in Victoria.


Also in the early 1960s the club was given an old clinker hulled surf boat. It weighed a ton, had dried out and therefore leaked. Not to be put off we dumped it in a local farmer’s dam for while. Fixed up, it was used for training. My brother Trevor was interested in being involved and started to learn to sweep (steer) the boat. A year or so later we won a hand-down surf boat of modern design and there began Woolamai’s long  history of surf boat rowing. We had limited success in the beginning but gradually built up experience and confidence.


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, BP sponsored a surf boat race on the Yarra during the Moomba Carnival. Our boys were determined to win. And they did – three times! In 1968, 1969 and 1971. They won three new boats in four years, which was amazing. A requirement for the winners was to pass down their best current boat to the next club down the line, and so on, which ensured that all clubs had at least some sort of boat.


During these years our surf boat teams were expanding and we formed reserve grade and junior grade teams. Trevor’s skill as a sweep was growing  and these days he is recognised by Surf Life Saving Australia as one of Australia’s top sweeps. Trevor is now 67 years of age and still competing with the under 23 female team who won the Victorian titles in 2013-14. Generally sweeps are male, due to the strength required to manoeuvre the boat.


In 1974 we went to Adelaide,  with two boat crews, to compete in the Australian championships. I loaded the car with junior crew members, and our gear, hooked the boat on the back, and off we went. It was an exciting weekend. Our reserve crew won the Australian title and the junior crew placed third in their respective divisions. Gold and bronze to take home!


The following year we went to Dee Why in Sydney to complete again in the Australian championships. Once again towing a boat, crew and gear on board. This time the junior crew won the Australian title and the reserve crew placed third. Our cup runneth over! Gold and bronze again.


For me, it was a lot of weekends up early, hook on the boat, load gear and crew and off to a carnival. We travelled a lot of miles over those years, but life was never dull. I was surrogate parent to the younger members and had to deal with discipline and sometimes with fragile egos if things didn’t go right.


In 1971 Woolamai  opened its new clubhouse to replace the old Nissan hut which had been erected in 1960. The club had purchased the Nissan hut from Camp Pell, the migrant centre in Royal Park in Melbourne. The SEC brought in electricity and Western Port water brought in water to the new building. For the first time we had hot water and refrigerators – ah! Cold beer and hot showers!


Patrols were given a boost in 1978 when we purchased our first four wheel drive – a little yellow Suzuki. Patrols were now able to cover the beach from the Cape to Forrest Caves and beyond. On occasion the vehicle was used to attend rescues at other Phillip Island beaches.

In the 1973-74 season, I was appointed a Life Member of the club – an honour which I cherish.


Another major first for Woolamai took place on the 2nd November 1980 when we presented the first Victorian female bronze squad for examination. Those girls were the first Victorian female surf life savers. This was after a change to the state rules which allowed female active members. One of these ‘girls’, Barbara Webb, is still a club member and recently she and her husband Tony were appointed Life Members. They are tireless workers.

1980 was the year of the ‘great Woolamai fire’. There was a carnival in progress and a grass fire started in a temporary carpark at the western end of the beach. As a result, 40 cars were lost. A day I will never forget.


In those years a new item of equipment came along to change life saving forever: the Inshore Rescue Boat or IRB, better known as the “rubber duckie” – faster, safer and able to handle multiple rescues; it was a game changer. A few years later the reel and line was removed as a piece of life saving equipment. In the early 1980s the club decided to compete in IRB carnivals. These were generally held over the winter months. Between 1983 and 1993 we won 18 championships in various categories. Along the way we had developed a sponsorship deal with Mercury Outboards, and the club helped with development of new and improved motors for use in surf rescue.


Our next project was to increase patrols to service Smiths Beach and Cowes. Smiths Beach in particular was growing in popularity. Our first life guard squad was formed in 1984 to provide a limited service to these two areas. Over the years the need for patrols at Smiths Beach has grown and we now have full-time patrols during the holiday season from December to Easter. Woolamai is one of the few clubs in Australia to patrol away from its home base. In reality our area is the whole of the Phillip Island coastline.


Life Saving Victoria has an award for the best life saver of the year. It is the “John Wishart Memorial Medal”. Woolamai members have won this prestigious award on three occasions: Brian Whittaker in 1985; Stuart Irving in 1991; and Michael Sullivan in 2010, and they are outstanding members.


In 1986 the Channel Challenge started – a swim run event, swimming from San Remo to Newhaven and a run back over the bridge. The Challenge celebrated its 30th anniversary on 7th February this year. The inspiration for the challenge came from the late Lyall Williams from the San Remo Hotel as a way to raise funds for the club. As with many great ideas it came about over a beer in the pub. The response from the local community was amazing. Service organisations, council and members of the community all pitched in to help, and are still doing it.


The late 1980s early 1990s, the club realised that a number of member’s who had married and had children were drifting away. To solve the problem the club built a “residence” on the Woolamai estate to provide accommodation for families away from the beach. A small group of members worked hard to find building materials and labour, a lot of which was donated. The building opened in 1994. It has six bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 2 toilets, communal kitchen and sleeps 24.


Up until 1993, access to the beach was along a track on the front dune close to the beach. Wind-blown sand often closed the road and we must have driven the Shire Engineer and his staff mad with pleas to grade the road and open it up. About that time the Federal Government granted $800,000 to construct a new hinterland road and car park. These were opened in 1993.


In 1993 Woolamai got together with Phillip Island Football Club to jointly run the Cowes Classic – a swim-run event. In 2000 the two clubs started the Island Swim. Both events are still running, and will be held on the first weekend in March.


Back at the beach in the 1990s it was obvious that the clubhouse was deteriorating and needed to be replaced. A building committee was formed and the planning began. After years of work the current building was opened in 2002. The club won the Victorian Government Community Facility Design Award for design excellence and innovation the same year.


Forward to 2006 and Woolamai was named the Victorian Life Saving Club of the Year. We think a significant achievement! However, that was all trumped in 2007 when Woolamai was named Australian Life Saving Club of the year. It was also the Australian Year of the Life Saver, which added to our triumph.


Over the years Woolamai has developed a strong female membership, both in administration and in competition, particularly in surf boat rowing. An example is in 2007 that the president, secretary and club captain were all female.


How time passes. In 2009 we celebrated our 50th anniversary. There was a back-to on the January long weekend and on the 26th July we had a birthday party at the Royal Brighton Yacht Club. Woolamai is known for great parties, and this was no exception!

The total rescues by club members up until 2014 was 2,737.


As well as serving the club we have had a number of members who have given outstanding service to Life Saving Victoria, both in paid and unpaid positions. I served as a delegate to the State Council for many years. All through my years of service on the committee and various sub-committees I have until today maintained my interest in the club and its history. Along the way my historical collection has continued to grow. I now have 15 scrap books, 43 x 54 centimetres and 100 pages each. These contain press cuttings, photos, magazine articles relating to Woolamai, Cape Woolamai and life saving in general. There are 20 x 20 litre boxes of club garments containing T shirts, tops, competition and patrol gear dating back to the 1960s. A total of 100 and still growing as members go through the old clothes in their wardrobes.  There are 22 x 50 litre boxes of club records including correspondence, newsletters and annual reports.


With the arrival of the digital era, I am not sure whether today’s records will survive, but I am working on it.


In conclusion I must say that being a member of Woolamai has been a wonderful experience. The highs and lows, the fun and sadness, and, best of all the friendships, some of which are now over 50 years and new ones keep coming.