From retreat to revival: shifting a leading surf club

Coastal communities and surf lifesaving clubs around New Zealand bear dramatic early risks from climate change and sea-level rise. In Paekākāriki, one of the country’s oldest surf clubs is vulnerable – its boat ramp collapsed in last Spring’s storms. But this club is turning retreat into opportunity, as it consults on plans to install and fundraise for a new building inland.

Paekākāriki Surf Lifesaving Club as it is in August 2020: its boat ramp collapsed in 2019.

The Paekākāriki Surf Lifesaving Club has protected its community since 1913, rescuing 1000 people in the past 100 years. Now the group is protecting its clubroom’s future – proposing to relocate to a new modern facility nestled in Queen Elizabeth Park.

Former Kāpiti Coast mayor and local Jenny Rowan says surf lifesaving is “an essential activity for our coast nationally and our village in particular. It’s hugely significant.”

The family-centred club has 250 members from across the Wellington region. This includes 150 nippers (juniors) and 80 active lifeguards, who compete nationally. Dedicated volunteers provide more than 3000 patrol hours each year to keep the community safe.

The original surf lifesaving club met its coastal fate after heavy seas in 1916.
Image: Alexander Turnbull Library

Since serving as mayor, Rowan has continued as the club’s patron, a role she views as “a very serious privilege”. 

For the past decade, the club has discussed whether to do up or rebuild the clubrooms. The current 1960s-built structure is now “very much on the edge of demise” – not earthquake-proof, no longer able to get building consents, and unsuited to present and future needs.

“The surf club itself has to go. Whether we rebuild or not, the present building will be demolished.”

This is a national issue, Rowan says. Other coastal settlements have club facilities of a similar age and are faced with coastal threats: “There is a big rebuild needed on surf clubs around New Zealand”.

The Greater Wellington Regional Council now requires that buildings on the foreshore move inland – due to advancing seas and the higher risk of storm surges and erosion.

If you take the walking track over the dunes, pretty much directly behind the current clubrooms, you’ll find the proposed site for the new building. It’ll be on flat ground in Queen Elizabeth Park, 85 metres from the beach. Car access will be created off the current driveway to the ranger’s house.

Paekākāriki Surf Lifeguards are holding an open information day at the clubrooms on 13 September (3.30pm) – to share its proposals and seek community support.

A priority is to consult on the proposals with the local hapū, Ngāti Haumia ki Paekākāriki, and also Ngāti Toa. Ngāti Haumia is in early discussions on the idea of building a marae in the park, so it’s important for the area to be planned in a coordinated way. 

There’s also a survey for all residents and others to give feedback on the proposal.

The planned building will be a multi-purpose, modern club facility designed to fit with the park’s natural environment. 

A portable tower on the beach will be a fresh feature – “a little like Bay Watch!” While the new building will offer a glimpse of the deeper sea, the surf itself won’t be visible. Lifeguards will move the tower inside each night.

The space will be available for community use and for bookings by other organisations. 

The club is mindful of minimising noise and disruption for people who reside close to the park – and are already door-knocking to discuss the plans. It’s likely the conditions will restrict evening use of the venue. 

Of course, a new contemporary facility doesn’t come cheap. The club needs to raise three-million dollars, but Rowan feels positive it can be done. 

Funds will comprise a mix of possible central government funding, and lotteries and community fundraising. It’s a hope that some who have learned to surf in the area, or who have been surf lifesavers in the past, may be willing to donate.

The open day meeting is an opportunity to consider whether you might want to contribute time or money to the project. 

“Anyone who’s even remotely curious is welcome.”

Jenny Rowan spoke to Mark Amery and Sam McLaughlan on Paekākāriki 88.2FM’s ‘Te Pae’ community radio show.

(first ten mins only)

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