Yesterday it was 80 years since the Black Sunday surf rescue at Bondi Beach, which was commemorated on the weekend with a re-enactment featuring 150 lifesavers, complete with period costume and equipment.
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Bondi Beach has always been a popular destination for Sydneysiders and tourists alike, and like many places in this city it is one with a rich history.
Its name comes from the Aboriginal word, ‘Boondi’, meaning ‘water tumbling over rocks’ or noise of ‘water breaking over rocks’. The Aboriginal rock carvings at Bondi depicting fish and sharks are historic features of the beach, with the oldest dating to around 2,000 years old.
The Bondi Pavilion is another historic site. It was built in 1928, designed to accommodate 12,000 people and was the largest surf pavilion built in Sydney. The pavilion has been the home of cabarets, parties, plays, festivals and many other cultural events.
On the afternoon of Sunday 6 February 1938, there were tens of thousands of people at the much loved beach. The late afternoon shift for the life savers had just started, and around 40 other life savers from the Bondi and North Bondi Life Saving Clubs were preparing to enter the water as part of a regular club race, when three huge waves hit the beach in quick succession and swept between 250-300 people out to sea. One witness said ‘Those three great waves which caused the backwash swept in and out in a matter of only five or six seconds’.1
Approximately 200 swimmers needed to be rescued by the 60 or so lifesavers who went into the boiling water, attached by belt to surf reel lines, or using surf skis and surfoplanes. In the end, five people drowned, 35 people were resuscitated, and many more required medical attention.
The victims were Bernard Byrne (34), Leslie Potter (18), Ronald McGregor (21), Michael Kennedy/Taylor (47) and Carl ‘Sweety’ Saur, a 53 year old German man who died while saving a girl.
According to ABC News this weekend, there is only one survivor of Black Sunday still alive today. Norma Allerding, now aged 96, was in the water with her father, and was quoted over the weekend as saying: ‘It is a day I will never forget. All of a sudden this huge wave came and we were tossed around…It was horrific, it was pandemonium everywhere.’2
A French Canadian wrestler who was at the beach that day said “”I’ve seen rescues and drowings in every part of the world, but never anything as magnificent as the job done by those lifesaving boys yesterday”. A lot has changed since 1938, but the beach, and surf life saving, one of the largest volunteer movements in the world, remain important parts of our culture.
1 Heroism in the Surf, The Sun, 7 February 1938, p1 HEROISM IN THE SURF (1938, February 7). The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), p. 1 (LATE FINAL EXTRA). Retrieved February 6, 2018, from
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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