Less than a third of IRB surf rescue drivers are women, but reigning world champion Taylor Shrimpton is leading change by example – doing what she loves in the surf to win titles and save lives.
If you’re unfortunate enough to get into trouble in the waters off Sunset Beach in Port Waikato, you’d hope Taylor Shrimpton was in charge of the rescue boat that day.
Shrimpton is probably one of New Zealand’s least known reigning world champions, but she’s an incredible athlete, nonetheless. One who also saves lives.
A civil engineer in her day job, 26-year-old Shrimpton spends most weekends through the summer months at Sunset Beach, either training or volunteering as a driver of an IRB (inflatable rescue boat).
Back in 2018, she was part of the New Zealand team who were crowned the world IRB champions in Australia, the first time IRB was included in the lifesaving world championships.
Shrimpton was co-captain of the team, alongside her now husband, Shane Edwards; her elder brother, Hogan, was also part of the world champion squad.
Although the IRB section of the 2022 world championships in Italy have been cancelled because of Covid, Shrimpton hasn’t taken her eye off the waves.
After making a clean sweep of the North Island surf rescue champs last month – dominating all five women’s events with her crew, Abi Chapman – Shrimpton is out to do the same at this weekend’s BP surf rescue national champions at Māhia Beach in Hawkes Bay.
Since she started as a “patient” in an IRB crew as a young teenager, it’s always been a family affair for Shrimpton.
Her mum and auntie grew up near Karioitahi Beach, on Auckland’s south-west coach, and received their bronze medallions around the age of 15 in order to become qualified lifesavers.
Shrimpton, her siblings and cousins followed suit, spending most weekends at the family Port Waikato bach, lifeguarding and in IRBs.
“It’s been a really cool way to bring all my siblings and my cousins together regularly and form quite a good friend group out at the beach,” Shrimpton says.
Shrimpton then made new family down at Sunset Beach.
IRB racing involves a driver, a crew person and a patient – the patients often being younger, smaller kids, “cause they’re easy to pick up,” Shrimpton laughs.
Shrimpton and her younger sister, Robbie, started as patients around 10 years ago, when Edwards, the coach of the local IRB team, encouraging them to join the team. But as soon as Shrimpton turned 16, she got her driver’s ticket – and she’s held that role on the boat ever since.
Now married, Shrimpton and Edwards have remained loyal to the Sunset Beach Lifeguard Service.
The small club has become synonymous with IRB racing – all eight members of the New Zealand team who won the world title were from Sunset Beach.
The club continue to dominate – at last month’s North Island championships, they finished with 171 points, well clear of second-placed Bethells Beach, on 89 points.
Shrimpton competed in five different events – the single rescue, mass rescue, tube rescue, assembly rescue and teams race – and she and Chapman came away with five golds. The goal is to do the same this weekend and defend their national titles.
“My crew and I don’t like to lose, so our aim is to win everything,” she says. “We managed to do that last year, so we’re trying to see if we can do it again this year.”
Taylor Shrimpton and Abi Chapman after making a clean sweep at the 2021 IRB nationals at Ruakaka.
Preparing for a national championship isn’t straightforward. Outside surf lifesaving, Shrimpton works as a civil engineer for CivilPlan Consultants, fitting in training around her job. While it’s tricky, her employers have been very supportive.
“When we’re leading up into a big competition, we’ll be training in the mornings, going to work, then training in the afternoons and also on the weekend,” she says.
The drive from her home in Drury to Port Waikato takes about 45 minutes, so most of her weekday trainings take place in the gym or pool.
Competing on the world stage – and winning two gold and two silver medals as well as the overall world title – was an opportunity to take her sport to the next level, Shrimpton says.
“Being able to represent New Zealand is always really special and it’s cool you get to feel like you’re going to inspire other people by what you’re doing,” she says. “It’s really good for the awareness of the sport and creating pathways for younger people.”
Shrimpton and Edwards were looking forward to defending their world title in Riccione, Italy, in September 2020, but the event was postponed because of Covid. Organisers then made the difficult decision to cancel the IRB and surfboat events at this year’s world championships in September, because of Covid restrictions.
“That was a shame for sure; we were really looking forward to it,” says Shrimpton, but she’s now set her focus to the 2024 worlds on the Gold Coast instead.
While there aren’t as many women and girls involved in IRB surf rescue as men, Shrimpton has seen the sport evolve to better meet the needs of women.
“There used to only be an open women’s division a couple of years ago, but they’ve added in younger female age groups now,” she explains.
That’s seen the gap in participation across genders decrease, and the number of young women catching up to the men.
“It’s made it so much more accessible for the younger females – their very first competition they’re not racing someone like me who’s been racing for 10 years. They’re actually racing people who are new to the sport as well,” says Shrimpton.
Around half of Surf Life Saving New Zealand’s lifeguards are women, but women make up less than a third of IRB drivers.
Programmes like Wāhine on Water are encouraging more women to give it a go, and gain confidence with IRBs.
“The engines and the boats can be a little bit intimidating and the boys tend to love it and really get involved, which makes it harder for the girls to compete with their level of enthusiasm,” Shrimpton says.
She agrees it can be daunting for young girls to handle a 120kg boat. “But there’s been a lot more support for females getting into it now, so that’s really cool.”
Shrimpton doesn’t just participate in surf lifesaving to compete and win titles – IRB racing helps with her actual lifesaving skills.
“The events are simulations of rescues, so that’s why I think our sport is quite an important one,” she says. She works one weekend each month over the five summer months as a volunteer lifeguard at Sunset Beach.
“It actually develops the lifeguards’ rescuing capabilities which makes us better suited to rescuing people in real life and save lives.”
Along with learning skills on the water, the sport has taught Shrimpton a lot off the water as well.
“You learn all sorts through surf lifesaving – leadership skills, working in team environments, working in stressful environments which really helps going through school and university,” she says.
“It really sets you up to work well with other people, too.”
Shrimpton’s passion for the sport is evident, but her favourite thing is the community, friends and family that surf lifesaving has brought her.
“You get to hang out with your family and friends and be at the beach in the sunshine, so it’s a great weekend activity,” she says.
“Whether it’s courses for rescuing people or getting to jump out of a helicopter, you just get to do some awesome things with some awesome people.”
And she’s a world champion at it, too.