ELTON STONE: It made all the years in surf lifesaving worth the effort.
ELTON STONE: It made all the years in surf lifesaving worth the effort.

Lifesaving badges of honour

By JAMIE BROWN jamie.brown@northernstar.com.au ELTON STONE and Bill Onslow know the pride of saving swimmers in the surf. They wear it like a badge of honour.

Most surf lifesavers spend countless hours on patrol and are never called upon to take part in a real-life rescue.

However, these two members of the Ballina Lighthouse-Lismore Surf Lifesaving Club recall a mass rescue that took place 40 years ago on New Year's Day.

Twenty-eight mostly novice swimmers were swept 300 to 400 metres out to sea after a series of big set waves created a 'flash rip', a watery highway to potential demise, which migrated into the bathing area from the southern end of Lighthouse Beach.

Forty-two club members responded to the emergency, while an incredible 3000 enthralled onlookers took it all in. Elton, then 35 and club president, ran to the clubhouse tower and began relaying instructions over the megaphone.

Bill, then 19 and branch belt and reel champion, swam his heart out.

Forty-five minutes after it all began the victims were safely back on the beach. The day's only casualty, an exhausted Bill, was taken to hospital for observation.

"It was like being in a washing machine," he recalled, stating he was out the back bodysurfing with the aid of a pair of fins as the event unfolded.

Bill wasn't alone. The late Bob Gates, who went on to become Lismore mayor, well-known motoring businessman Jack Trevan, and Ian Byrnes were also out in the surf.

When the set waves arrived, Bill said conditions went ballistic and when the rip materialised it became clear an emergency was in progress.

All of the club swimmers grabbed floundering swimmers and supported them until belt-men arrived to drag them safely back to the beach.

Then it was Bill's turn at hauling rescue lines out beyond the break.

On his first swim he was attached to a canvas belt and 600 metres of waxed cotton line before jumping straight back into the surf. His swim fins would have helped, but there was a lot more required.

On his second rescue Bill was hooked up to two lines, swimming nearly 1200 metres as one group of distressed bathers were swept around Speeds Reef towards Shelly Beach.

According to The Northern Star's report, written by then editor Cliff Murray, 16 belt and line rescues were carried out using four reels by lifesavers John Cullen, Bob Brown, Allan Joblin, Elio Da Re, Des Roberts, Richard Crandon and Phil Murray, son of Cliff and a casual sub-editor with The Northern Star.

A second group of victims were swept south and it just happened that a surf boat crew was out beyond the break practising their skills.

Legendary sweep Max Sidney, along with Chris Lomax, Wilson Cregan, Jim Poulos and a man named in The Star only as G Pheeney, were directed by Elton to get them on board.

But as the surf was too big to make an attempt back to the beach, they waited with their victims until belt-men could drag them ashore.

The man in charge, Elton Stone, retired solicitor and cornerstone of the Ballina Lighthouse club, reflects from his retirement home at Shelly Beach, overlooking that historic rescue 40 years ago.

"To get a result like that," he said, "made all the years in surf lifesaving worth the effort."

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