Wāhine on Water aiming for better equality among lifeguards driving inflatable rescue boats

There's a push to achieve better gender equality among lifeguards on New Zealand's beaches this summer. 

Wāhine on Water is a programme aimed at encouraging more women to become crew and drivers of inflatable rescue boats (IRB) in what's always been a male-dominated area.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand statistics revealed half of surf lifeguards are female, but they make up just 28 percent of IRB drivers.

"We realised there's just a huge lack of female involvement," says volunteer lifeguard Phoebe Havill.

She's trying to rectify that by running training sessions specifically for women and specifically to increase the number of women in the driver's seat.   

"It's a bit of a barrier for females to get into other aspects of surf lifesaving if they're not comfortable with IRBs," she says.

A lack of confidence isn't the only barrier.  

"Sometimes I think that females aren't the first people to be thought of when thinking about training for IRBs, they aren't consciously excluded, but aren't shoulder-tapped or aren't shown the door to be involved."

Wāhine on Water aiming for better equality among lifeguards driving inflatable rescue boats
Photo credit: Newshub.

Since IRBs are heavy and awkward to lift, hands-on training is essential for everyone. 

"You have to learn to read the surf and navigate the boat as well which is quite challenging," says volunteer lifeguard Stella Reid.

"Weight distribution is really big in IRBs, especially if you have a bigger driver than you," adds volunteer lifeguard Alex Carmichael.

IRBs play a vital role in dangerous rescues and have assisted in saving more than 20,000 Kiwis' lives to date. 

"All the people we rescue, they're all men and women. I think it's important to have that representation in the lifeguards as well," Reid says.

As we travel around this summer, the beaches are expected to be busier than ever - and lifeguards will be too.