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Golden memories for life-saving club

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: January 26, 2012

  • TEAM GB: The Surf Life Saving GB international team in 1964. Picture: Rob Tibbles Ref: BNRT20120119C-011_C

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A LIFESAVING surf rescue club in North Devon will celebrate its 50th birthday in March.

Woolacombe Surf Life Saving Club was set up by a select group in 1962.

In those days it was not uncommon to have deaths in North Devon's waters.

Within its first year the club had about 200 members.

The initial group which set up the club was an elite crew.

They formed a Great Britain surf lifesaving team and had planned to do an international visit to Durban, South Africa in 1964.

But problems caused by the country's former apartheid regime meant the trip was cancelled.

One of the team was Alan Kift, now a retired men's clothing agent who lives in Ilfracombe.

Mr Kift, 74, said how unusual the club was — they toured around the UK and also held competitions at Woolacombe.

They went to Wales to compete but also to demonstrate to other areas where a club could be set up.

Not only did the club have a Great Britain team but within the first two years of the club's launch four of the members received Testimonials on Vellum.

The awards, given out by the Royal Humane Society, are for those who have put themselves in considerable danger to save, or attempt to save, someone else.

Mr Kift received one of the awards for an incident on July 31, 1972. He and three others had gone down to the beach and were looking out to sea before heading in themselves.

They noticed three of the beach's lifeguards were in the water and in trouble.

Mr Kift recalled: "It was low tide and they were all out on the right hand sand of the beach, very close to the rocks.

"We went in with a rope attached to us but as we reached them a big set came in.

"One of the lifeguards was being washed onto the rocks. I got to him knowing we could cut through a gully.

"Once I had got him we got to the cliff where we were helped up.

"We were both pretty cut up. He went to hospital but wasn't badly hurt and the other two had also been saved."

That was one event with a happy ending but Mr Kift said they weren't all like that.

He can remember two deaths in the ten years he was an active member of the club.

One incident resulted in Mr Kift going up in the RAF Search and Rescue helicopter with a casualty, who unfortunately couldn't be saved.

Mr Kift said deaths in the water were more common before the surf life saving club was in existence.

In the five years before 1962 there had been an average of five drownings a year off North Devon beaches, he said. In those days it was the police who dealt with incidents in the water.

The police helped set WSLSC in 1962, and soon after the club's hut was erected in the dunes on Woolacombe Beach.

The club went into a decline in the mid 1970s but never folded. It soon after started to boom again and has not looked back since.

It was the first club to have a inshore rescue boat and Mr Kift believes surf life rescue care was way ahead of other emergency services.

Now, as the club approaches its 50th anniversary, the original members are looking for other early working members who they have lost touch with.

Do you know Ozzie Gammon, Stephen Latham, John Latham, Richard Watts or John Phillips?

If so, get in touch with Alan Kift on 01271 269205 or contact the Journal on 01271 347429.

The club is also looking for any memorabilia or photographs the club's members or supporters may have.

The club is planning its anniversary celebration at The Red Barn in Woolacombe on March 24.

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