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Aussie lifesavers drop in so Israeli nippers on board with wave safety

Jamie Walker

The Australian, 15 August 2015

“Loving this,’’ Callum Hawkins says, as the kids line up to get their nipper boards into the surf under the biggest, bluest sky you could imagine.
The red-and-gold beach flags have been pegged out, just like back home, and Hawkins is the picture of the all-Australian lifesaver in his quartered cap and sun vest. He’s showing the youngsters how to kick through the foaming beach break, no worries.

They’ve been taught to dolphin dive under those deceptively powerful Mediterranean dumpers and to lift the knees when wading, because you don’t walk through the surf. Gotta put some effort into it.
“Keep your head up, mate,” he tells 11-year-old Adir Hazan, one of the sleek, shining-eyed children who are hanging on his words as they’re translated into Hebrew.

It’s Nippers 101 on the beach at Ashdod, a resort centre south of Tel Aviv baking in the heat of an Israeli summer.

Hawkins, 20, is imparting the surf-craft he learned as a boy on Sydney’s Coogee Beach. This runs in the family. His father, Doug, is boss of the nippers program Sydney-wide for Surf Life Saving Australia while mother Heather was assistant manager of the club he joined at the age of five.
They have been brought to Israel­ with another Coogee lifesaver, Jess Halbert, 18, and Bondi Beach veteran Michael Gencher, 47, under an initiative to share Australian know-how with beach-loving but safety-challenged Israelis.

The idea came from fellow Sydneysider Steve Rubner, a retired accountant and surfing buff who, with wife Ann, enjoys two summers a year by shuttling between leafy inner-eastern Woollahra and a flat near the beach in the Israeli city of Netanya.

They were shocked by the deaths of five Israelis in surf drownings over a single weekend in 2013. When Ann witnessed a near tragedy involving two French tourists, they decided to do something about it.
“We soon realised that the real problem was a basic lack of education,’’ Mr Rubner explains, proudly watching the blue-capped Israeli nippers go through their paces.
“The average Israeli doesn’t know much about the sea, or tides or going into rips — the sort of things that tend to be ingrained in Australians as kids.’’

He reached out to Surf Life Saving Australia and was put in touch with Doug Hawkins, who jumped at the chance to set up the Middle East’s first junior life saving franchise.

The seed money was raised from donors in Sydney, including the Pratt family. Ashdod City Council cleared a path through Israel­’s notorious red tape, and NSW Premier Mike Baird came on board as patron of the fundraising group, Australian Friends of Life Saving Israel.
The one hitch came from an entirely unexpected quarter: Gaza, a smudge on the horizon visible from Ashdod.

This time last year, a bloody war was being fought there betwee­n Israel and the militants who control the Palestinian enclave­, putting Ashdod in the firing line.
Haim Latucha, a businessman who helped set up Surf Life Saving Israel, was on the beach when a Hamas rocket slammed into the sand 800m from where he was standing. “This place was a war zone,’’ Mr Latucha says.

You would never know it now. Mr Rubner, 66, had planned to start modestly with 30 kids in the foundation course; instead, 80 enrolle­d after completing the qualifying swim required of Australian nippers.

He was told the program would sink in Israel: boys wouldn’t be seen dead in the regul­ation pink sun tops from Australia; the quartered lifesaving caps looked too much like the Jewish kippah skullcap; in any case, their parents would have other ideas about what to do with an afternoon on the beach.

Instead, Herzliya beach in Tel Aviv is set to go with an expansion nippers club next summer, and beach managers in Netanya, Haifa and Acre had made approaches. As Doug Hawkins says: “Kids are kids, and what works in Australia is going to work here.’’

Tony Hazan, an English-speaking paramedic with the local port authority, said he wanted his son, Adir, to learn how to be safe in the water, especially if something went wrong while they were out surfing together. The boy nods. “The Australians teach us how to be fast,’’ he says.

Renana Haviv said she hadn’t realised how little she knew about the surf until her nine-year-old son, Ofri, started the nippers course. His little sister would be joining him as soon as she turned seven — for now, the minimum starting age.

Callum Hawkins was transported back to when he started out as a nipper all those years ago on Coogee Beach. As the kids clamoured for one of the newly unpacked boards from Australia, he says: “This is exactly what I did when I was doing nippers. Only it’s here, on the shores of the Mediterranean. I am still trying to wrap my head around it.”

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