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Merryn Anderson

Wāhine on Water riding the wave

Wāhine on Water has helped hundreds of girls around Aotearoa to be confident within surf life saving. Photo: Christian Richardson

Often thought of as a 'boys' club', more female lifeguards are learning how to drive inflatable rescue boats. Merryn Anderson finds out how a mentoring programme is providing a safe space for girls to learn the skill. 

On Olivia Kayes’ first ever patrol as an inflatable rescue boat driver, her patrol captain said she actually wasn’t allowed to drive it that day – because she was a girl. 

But now she wants to make sure the next generation of surf life savers won’t face the same prejudice.

In 2019, it was found that only 28 percent of inflatable rescue boat (IRB) drivers were women, despite surf lifeguarding having an even gender split. 

That’s when Wāhine on Water was established – a mentoring programme to encourage women to learn to drive the boats and take on leadership roles within surf life saving. 

Kayes was the head instructor for a Wāhine on Water event last weekend, as a record 70 participants gathered on Waihi Beach for the IRB development day. 

“The main idea was to just have lots of fun. And the main feedback for the whole day was that it was a really safe space for people to learn without feeling judged, which was pretty epic,” Kayes says. 

The girls not only learned how to drive the boats, but also how to do engine maintenance and patient pick-ups. 

“I think the coolest thing is girls being empowered to get in there for rescues and drive the IRB for rescues and actually help save lives,” Kayes says. 

“Even little things like learning how to do engine maintenance and learning how to set up the boat which typically the boys would just take over, it’s pretty cool that the girls can do that now as well.” 

READ MORE:World surf rescue champ drives change by exampleThe Mounties on a mission in the surf

It’s a common misconception that girls don’t drive the rescue boats because they're too heavy or the challenge is too physical but Kayes dismisses that theory. 

“To a degree it’s physical ... but IRB driving is very, very technique-based,” Kayes explains. 

“A bit of strength comes into play, but with the right technique, you don’t actually have to be super muscly to be able to launch the boat and drive the boat. 

“Especially driving the boat, you have an engine behind you, it’s way more about judging the waves and knowing when to turn and when to punch and things like that. In terms of picking up patients and launching the boat, you do need a bit of strength behind you but again, it kind of comes down to technique.” 

The girls were treated to a demonstration from world champion IRB racer Taylor Edwards on the day, who emphasised to the girls that it’s truly about technique. 

“I’d say she’s better at launching the boat than many, many of the boys who drive them in this country,” Kayes says of the powerful Edwards. 

More than 70 girls gathered at Waihi Beach to learn about driving IRBs. Photo: Christian Richardson

Just 21, Kayes is a paramedic, working in Mount Maunganui since the end of February. Her surf life saving journey started young, as it was a family affair. 

Starting surf sports at Red Beach, there were only around 10 girls with Kayes, with the number now closer to 50.

Kayes doesn’t remember seeing many girls drive the boats, and took her course with only one other girl. 

Her first time driving wasn’t the best experience for her. 

“I was pretty scared, I was pretty horrendous at driving as well,” Kayes laughs. 

“Probably the first 70 percent of sessions, I would just be absolutely bricking it and almost cry the whole time, cause I was surrounded by boys who already knew how to drive the boats. 

“I kind of just had to put my big girl shoes on and carry on and learn how to do it. But now it’s probably my favourite skill within surf life saving.” 

Kayes believes the fear of judgment holds a lot of girls back from learning to drive the boats, having been a boys’ club in the past. 

That’s why she’s so passionate about groups like Wāhine on Water.

“Wāhine on Water is everything to me, I think 10 years ago it was everyone’s dream to have events like this,” Kayes says. 

“When I started being an IRB driver, the second you slipped up, everyone just blamed it on the fact that you were a girl. It was always like the boy can drive and the girl can jump in and be the crewman, the girl can help push the trailer in, there was always a stereotype that girls shouldn’t really be driving the boats. 

“It’s pretty cool how far we’ve come because of events like this.” 

Olivia Kayes (right) helped teach younger sister Ruth to drive IRBs at the event. Photo: Christian Richardson

One special person Olivia has inspired is her younger sister Ruth. 

“I have been wanting to drive IRBs for as long as I can remember,” says Ruth Kayes, who is four years younger than Olivia. 

“Especially having my older sister as a role model who has been very into the boats and very into the jet skis for most of my life.” 

The Wāhine on Water event was Ruth's first time at the helm.

“Driving it myself, going out in the waves, I was like ‘I’m gonna kill everyone in here, oh my god, I’m going to die, I don’t know how to get out’, but I survived that." And now she never wants to get out of an IRB. 

The opportunity to learn in an accepting environment was an “unreal experience” for Ruth.

“Being in a space where I was free of judgment and restraints and I could learn a lot about the boats was very welcoming and a very nice place to be,” she says. 

“Everyone had such a vast information of knowledge that you could pick at all day and it was just a cool environment to be able to learn without feeling like you were being judged at all.” 

This was the biggest Wāhine on Water event to date. Photo: Christian Richardson

Ruth agrees with her older sister that driving can seem like a bit of a boys’ club. 

“I realised I felt a lot more comfortable when I was just surrounded by girls,” she says. 

“When you just took a second to breathe, you realise they’re all in the same situation as you, we’ve all been a bit scared. And it was such an empowering space to be in, surrounded by so many girls who all had the same interests.

“I found all the teaching was catered to my personal learning and I was made to feel important, a lot more than I would have been in a mixed environment."

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