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Portsea Back Beach, the Club House, Point Nepean & The Heads

Portsea Surf Life Saving – The Club House

This article is a book review of, “The Club House – 70 Years of Building The Portsea Surf Life Saving Club”

Book author, Robert Robertson, Published, 2022, 361 pages.

This comprehensive book is not only a wonderful tribute to its key founding members, but it also encompasses both the history and spirit of the Portsea Sorrento Surf Life Save Club from its contemporary history to 2022. The primary audience of this book is PSLSC members and the community, providing a key record for future generations of those who built the club and its development. It pays tribute to all members throughout its history and in particular to the key club founder, Mil Napthine, 1908-2002.

However, this book’s scope is so expansive, that it has a broad appeal and covers many interesting stories and historical developments, including the most wonderful collection of photographs. Amazingly, there are about 1,000 images which are well restored or presented across every page, and are either historic, sports action, scenic or portrait photographs.

“Portsea was named by settler James Ford after an island of the same name that is incorporated by Portsmouth in England”. In the 1910s it was just a remote and secret picnic spot, too dangerous for swimming. But by the 1920s waves were being caught on short timber boards with upturned noses by adventurous men and women.

On Victorian coastlines, drownings were always a concern. In response to these events, several coastal surf clubs were formed. The Victoria branch of the Royal Life Saving Society was formed in 1894 to educate swimmers on water rescue and resuscitation methods. The reel and line method for surf life saving was adopted in 1914 and in 1918 a reel was placed on Sorrento back beach. The line was first made of hemp, then cotton, waxed cotton, then nylon and now terylene.

In the 1920’s life-saving demonstrations were conducted with great interest, including a demonstration from a Melbourne Women’s life-saving team. Women were not formally accepted into the life-saving movement until 60 years later. These demonstrations inspired an organised watch over the back beaches with many rescues. After interruptions during the war, and particularly after much concern around drownings at Sorrento in 1948, the Portsea Sorrento SLSC was formed. The Portsea Sorrento SLSC is Victoria’s 6th Surf Life Saving club after Torquay, Portland, Warrnambool, Lorne and Point Lonsdale. The club saved 78 people in the first two years.

The tenacity of Mil Napthine who established and led in the early years is very well highlighted along with many other key people. Rex Sargeant was Captain in 1950 and won the state title in 1951 for the belt swim. He was responsible for the development of the Chart of Signals, a communication method before radios, many of which are still in use today.

It’s development over time, and how the community spirit propelled it is well documented in this book. From the first initial buildings and the expansion of visitors coming by steamer ships from Melbourne on “Health and Pleasure trips on Port Phillip Bay”, and then later with increasing numbers coming in cars on new roads.

Clubhouse 1950 – image courtesy of Portsea SLSC

There are tales of courage, like Tom Willis in 1952 who searched without line or flippers in the thick kelp in heavy surf. Or the tragedy of John Wishart, taken by a shark after the Club Championships in 1956. Although now memorialised in club events it set the club back a little in membership. In 1955 there were tensions over the direction of the club and a breakaway group left to set up Point Leo Life Saving Club, leaving membership at an ebb of only 24 people.

During the 1960’s, a membership drive was conducted followed by big changes in club facilities. A local newsletter bulletin, ‘The Boomer’ helped facilitate the growth but also changed some of the club formalities with time, most notably the dress codes. In the 1960s there was a boom in surfing and surfing culture. Portsea members had a special pass to surf Leprosy Beach in the Quarantine station, which at that time was controlled by the military and off-limits to the public.

The clubhouse was again upgraded in 1962. Percy Cerutty, (the famous running coach) gave a guest speech at the opening celebrations thanking members for their hard work in gathering donations to fund the build. Percy was known to have run the 100km from Melbourne to Portsea in 8 1/2 hours and he convinced the audience about the benefits of running up and down dunes for training and exhausting the body through exercise every day!

The book nicely recounts many athletic club champions, surfing carnivals and club characters over the years. An ex-army boat sweep Peter Humphris used to wake the crew with sticks of gelignite, or take the boat fishing in the RIP. Surf lifesavers Bruce Morgan and Bruce Tayler devised a new method of life-saving using a huge fishing rod with a light line. The line is attached to the back of the rescuer, who can then be reeled back in with their victim.

Three Portsea life-saving club members were first on the scene of the famous Harold Hold drowning at Cheviot Beach in 1967. They correctly judged the current was excessive under the sea along the gutter where Harold Holt had entered and the rock shelf was too sharp & jagged to pursue a search. However, a navy diver did enter this area in his full protective wetsuit and was pulled back from this spot because of the danger.

Holt was lost at sea. One year later, Portsea held a successful interclub memorial carnival. The Harold Holt Swim Centre in Melbourne was later named after him too.

Did you know the Portsea Back beach had the world’s first Beach Chairlift? It operated from 1961 to 1970 and could move 360 people per hour at 80 meters per minute. In 1971 the clubhouse was again upgraded, including 21 beds for accommodating lifesavers coming from Melbourne to stay overnight in preparation for patrols. A preseason 400m swim test became mandatory, and Bronze Camps for training for the Bronze medallion and Nipper programs were introduced.

Clubhouse 1971 – image courtesy of Portsea SLSC

A section on surf boats highlights the evolving surf boat materials, including an experimental aluminium boat donated by Repco. Coca-Cola donated a boat in 1972, other boats came from a career first on the Yarra River in Melbourne or over from Gunnamatta. No interesting tangential information is excluded from this book. For example, we learn that Gunnamatta is an aboriginal name for ‘beach and sand hills’ and we learn about George Bass’s 1797 voyage through the club’s participation in the 1975 George Bass Surfboat Marathon. This is a 7-day, 190km rowing race from Bateman’s Bay, NSW to Eden, NSW. In the section on surf Skis & Boards, we learn Ski’s were 1st developed in Australia, by Dr G Saxon Crankanthorp in 1930. Remarkably, ladies were only granted full membership in 1980 and the book highlights many female successes in the following years.

The club building was again upgraded in 1986. The 80s saw big increases in social activities, events, fundraising and participation in other cultural events like the Melbourne Royal Show or the Summer Fashions Parade at Collins Place. In 1987 the Portsea Swim Classic was introduced with a swim around Portsea Pier of about 100 people.

Clubhouse 1994 – image courtesy of Portsea SLSC

By this time, Lifesaving members could no longer be just ‘good swimmers. They needed to be educated in rescue prevention, first aid, resuscitation, radio procedures, IRB operations and all watercraft techniques, including team leadership. Portsea SLSC excelled at the state and local levels in Surf Life Saving competitions with the book highlighting many of their athletes, including the Australian Surf Life Saver of the Year, Natalie Hood.

In 1990, 25,000 spectators lined the Portsea back beach shores and hills to watch Uncle Toby’s Super Series Iron Man. It included a Miss Victoria Beach Girl Contest. The club supports the Portsea Swim Classic annually and this swim has grown in size to almost 1,000 participants. Another swim soon joined the Open Water Swim Calendar after a race between book author Robert Robertson and good friend Ted Baillieu from Sorrento to Portsea in 1989. 23 people joined their race for a bottle of Perignon in 1990, but by 1993 the numbers had increased so much that they handed the annual event known as Pier to Perignon to the club to manage for safety and fundraising.

The club has a special prominence in its geographical position at Point Nepean, a dangerous area where tragedy has struck many times for sailors and swimmers alike. There is a 3.5 km opening to Port Philip Bay here known as The Heads. An area of extremely strong sea currents called The Rip encompasses this region. Commercial sea vessels need a local ship Pilot to board to sail through The Heads.

Swimming across The Rip is treacherous, however, Doug Mew swam across it on 13 June 1971 and then Barry Eastoe in 1990. They were not the first swimmers to cross. James Baillieu jumped ship at the Quarantine Station in 1853 and took 4 hours to swim across to Point Lonsdale. He settled there working as a boatman and with Emma Pow together had 16 children. One grandson, later also the Premier of Victoria, Ted Baillieu swam across The RIP with friends in 2004. Today, The Rip Swim is a regularly managed event taking well-prepared swimmers across in supported events, directed by Grant Seidle, (a past Portsea SLSC state title champion).

The club building was demolished and completely rebuilt in 2019. It stands as a proud and steady monument to all those who built and contributed to it, sturdy against the searing heat or freezing southerly gusts and providing a haven against the rugged elements. Portsea Surf Life Savers know the surf beach treachery better than anyone and undertake their role with dedication and conscientiousness regarding protecting the public. This book is a wonderful tribute to all of them and their great founders.

Review By John Scanlon.

Further information at and to order the book RRP $95, please email: 

Portsea Surf Life Saving Club house and beach looking eastwards

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Brian roberts

    Where can I buy the book the club house

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