Trying to reduce drownings – and bring on a new generation of surfers – the Wave Warriors teach kids from low-decile schools water safety wrapped in a surf lesson.

Eight-year-old Athena Talavai is less than half the height of the surfboard she’s expected to stand on, and probably only a quarter of the weight.

She is the tiniest among the 30 students from St Mary’s Primary in Avondale, who are being thrust into the unknown – the surf at Piha.

By road their school is just 35 minutes’ drive from West Auckland’s rugged coastline, yet most on board the bus have never been here, and a handful have never even set foot on a surf beach before.

I ask Athena what she’s feeling looking out at the waves. “Scared,” she says in barely a whisper.

Perhaps that’s why her mum is one of the five parent volunteers who’ve come along too.

“She just wanted a casual swim, but she’s never been to a beach like this, so it’s all new to her,” says mum Paula Talavai.

“She might drown, because she can’t swim yet. She’s still a beginner.”

To some, that might seem odd. An eight-year-old who can’t swim.

But Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) says the closure of school pools has had an impact on access to aquatic education for many of our tamariki.

“Kia ora guys, welcome to Piha. Are you excited?” asks Wave Warriors head surfing coach Dan Westercamp as the kids pour off the bus.  

You can guess the response.

For 10 years, Surfing New Zealand has been catering to low-decile schools throughout Auckland and Northland, offering youngsters water safety education wrapped in a surf lesson.

That’s 400 schools, and nearly 10,000 students.

“The delight on the faces of all the students who attend the programme is truly inspiring; it reminds you why we all started surfing,” says Wave Warriors programme manager Lee Ryan.

In 2017, a qualitative survey conducted by Associate Professor Chris Button of Otago University found a sample of primary school-aged children lacked a range of water survival skills; 62 percent were unable to swim 100 metres.

This backs up a study funded by WSNZ and conducted by the New Zealand Council for Education Research of 2409 primary schools that found that only around a quarter of them provided a minimum acceptable combination of eight or more water-based lessons a year.

But being able to swim doesn’t always equate to being safe in the water.

“This truly is the first time in the water for a lot of them, some haven’t even seen the beach before,” says surf instructor Caleb Heke. “You’ve got to build their confidence when they come out to these things, because when you’re young you don’t have it.”

New Zealand has one of the highest fatal drowning rates in the OECD. Last year alone there were 78 preventable deaths. Almost a third of those at beaches.

So before even touching Piha’s black sand, Westercamp runs a theory session on the grass, explaining the different parts of a surfboard and asking students if they know what a rip is.

“Rest in peace?” guesses one.

It’s abundantly clear there’s a lot to learn, most don’t even know what a wet suit is, but this is a ‘teach a kid how to fish’ situation.

“We came last year to do the surf programme, and they loved it so much,” says Lesina Turua, mother of eight-year-old Jules. “They’d never been exposed to the surf at all, but because of that experience they actually really want to do surfing.

“And actually the parents that have come, it has opened their eyes that it is safe and if they know the basics, it’s possible to surf.”

With surfing being introduced to the Olympics for the first time this year – and Piha hosting a World Surf League Challenger Series event for both women and men next month – this programme is invaluable to capturing and breeding an entirely new active audience.

Kiwi surfer Ella Williams will compete at the World Surfing League’s Piha Pro next month. Photo: Schnip Schnap.

“The problem with surfing is that traditionally education around it hasn’t been delivered well. You get a lot of people go out there and hurt themselves because they don’t get professional training,” says Heke.

While Wave Warriors is a Surfing New Zealand initiative, it’s funded by local bodies, via Sport New Zealand’s Kiwi Sport programme, which aims to promote sport for primary, intermediate and secondary school students.

But Heke and the other instructors are concerned that the programme won’t be funded again for 2021 as Sport New Zealand reviews how it allocates its money – looking to ensure that its 2015-2019 strategy still aligns with today’s community. The results are expected mid-year.

“These kids are going to be the next Kelly Slaters, there’s good potential here. We just need more funding,” says Heke.

He’s right, the potential is definitely on show as apprehension quickly turns to joy when the kids attempt to stand on the board for the first time.

Almost all of them are knocked off, either by the waves or each other. But they get back up, time and time again.

“I’ll get better soon enough,” Jackson Leavai yells to me over the surf. “But I feel amazing when I’m up there.”

Paula Talavai is jumping up and down in the shadows filming her daughter as she glides into shore with the grace and confidence of someone who’s been on a board many times before.

 “She’s actually really enjoying it, which I am surprised at. I would have thought she’d stay knee height, but she’s going in deeper,” she says.

It’s certainly a far cry from the netball court and cricket pitch Talavai is used to watching her daughter on.

“I will probably put it on the TV so we can all have a look when we get home, and definitely show her Nana.”

And then, as if to hit home what it’s all about, Heke’s forced to call everyone out of the surf as the conditions quickly change.

“I bought you in for safety, ok”, he tells the students.  “You guys are doing great out there, and it looks like you’re having heaps of fun. But if we look over here, where the water was pulling us across, there’s a big hole. It’s ok on me, but on some of our little girls it’s up to their neck and over their heads.”

He’s talking about Athena of course.

Yet for a girl whose mother says she doesn’t like being submerged, she appears desperate to get back out there.

“It was good, I had a lot of fun. I learnt not to go too deep. I was half-scared and half-happy.”

From one to 10, I ask her, how much fun?

“100,” she says, grinning back at me.

Kate King is a presenter on Sky Sport News, and has worked for international networks including Sky UK, Al Jazeera and Reuters in more than 10 years as a news and sports journalist.

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