The Mounties on a mission in the surf

As Julia Conway hits a wave in her inflatable rescue boat, her right hand clenched and thrumming on the tiller arm and salt spray stinging her face, she’s reminded of the many reasons she’s there.

Up ahead, her crew Jo Parry leans forward, deftly trimming the IRB, as the pair navigate an incoming set of waves.

With each wave, they’re propelled into the air; there's a surge of adrenaline as the craft takes flight and the outboard motor roars.

This is the intoxicating world of IRB racing - but for Conway and Parry, it's also crucial training for their summer jobs.

That’s the initial reason they’re out there - to save lives.

This summer, Conway was the head regional lifeguard based at the Mount Maunganui club – the first female to ever hold that role. Parry, who hails from the burgeoning Pukehina club further down the Bay of Plenty coastline, is also a female head guard trail-blazer, and worked as a paid guard at the Mount too.

Another reason is to race. Conway and Parry, who became friends as university flatmates in Dunedin, have joined forces this year to contest IRB events at surf lifesaving carnivals. 

They’ve discovered that they make a formidable team. In only their second competition, they won a silver medal at last month’s North Island IRB championships – beaten only by the women of Sunset Beach, the reigning IRB world champions.

And, finally, they’re riding out behind the breaking swells to inspire more women to drive a rescue craft.

“There’s a petrol-head stereotype to IRBs. And the boys tend to get shoulder-tapped to drive them,” Conway says.

“But we need to get more girls in boats. The more competent drivers we have – male or female - the more lives saved.”

Just 22, Conway already has a degree in biomedical science and is now in her second year studying to become a radiographer at Massey University.

But she admits her first love is the surf – especially when she’s in an IRB.

“I’m not sure my lecturers will appreciate me saying this, but my degree is really my side project at the moment,” says Conway. “They keep asking when I’m going to give up all this crazy stuff.”

The “crazy stuff” includes tossing frisbees. Earlier this year, Conway also became a national champion in disc golf, after entering the women’s doubles “on a whim” with her elder sister, Vivien.

The night before the North Island IRB champs at Waihi Beach, Conway and Parry were reminded again of how vital their lifeguard training is.

The two women had worked a 2-8pm shift, and were packing up the patrol for the day. “A guy ran up to us yelling ‘Defib! Where’s the defib?’” Conway says.

“Jo and I grabbed one [defibrillator] bag each, and we ran across the road to a restaurant where people had already started CPR on a guy. I yelled ‘airways’ to Jo, she said ‘Yeah’. And that’s all we had to say; we just got to work.

“Each of us knew what we had to do. It must be from all the time we’ve spent working together, training together, and living together.”

When the ambulance arrived, the man was breathing again. They’d done their job.

“We work so well together. Every time we’re in the boat and we hit a wave, good or bad, we both look at each other and scream ‘Yeah!’” Conway laughs.

Julia Conway (left) and Jo Parry will compete at the national IRB championships in Dunedin next month. Photo: Jamie Troughton, Dscribe Media. 

Conway grew up on the beach at Mount Maunganui: “I remember crying in the car on the way home when I was little, because I’d been dumped by a wave and my head was full of sand. But I loved it.”

She was a rookie lifeguard at 12, and started in IRBs at 15.

“I loved the thrill of it. We’d train intensely through winter in full wetsuits, our hands and feet hurting so much from the cold. But flying over the massive waves was so exciting,” she remembers.

She got her drivers award at 16 but didn’t get to spend a lot of time in a boat during her years of study.

That was until she met Parry on campus at the University of Otago. They’d seen each other at surf lifesaving trainings as kids, and became flatmates.

They discovered they shared the same passion. “We both loved watching IRB racing videos on YouTube; we were both frothing to get into an IRB,” Conway says.

Early this summer, at a weekend surf carnival in Ohope, they watched from the beach in awe as a women’s IRB crew raced against the men. On the Sunday, they were asked if they wanted to form a crew to race for the Bay of Plenty.

They didn’t need convincing, and never wavered - even when their first training on the Monday morning was “hell” – having to drag the heavy boat for 30m over the sand, and repeat 10 times, in pouring rain.

After their performance at the North Island championships – where they were second in the assembly rescue (where the crew have to fit the engine and fuel bladder on the IRB before racing to pick up a 'patient') and fourth in tube rescue – they were determined to go to the national IRB championships at Waikouaiti Beach in Dunedin next month.

Perry is still at university there, studying dentistry.

“We know we’re going to have to lift our game to beat the Sunset Beach girls,” Conway says. New Zealand won the inaugural IRB world title in Australia last year, with a team of female and male lifeguards from the Sunset Beach club at Port Waikato.

More important to Conway than any national title is her mission to get more women in boats.

This year, she’s doing the BP Leaders for Life programme, one of 16 emerging surf lifesaving leaders chosen from around the country. Her project: to increase the number of female IRB drivers.  

“We want to get every club in New Zealand to provide a mentor, preferably a female, to shoulder-tap girls in the club to drive or to crew,” she says.

She’s organising “driving days” at surf clubs where girls are put through fun driving drills.

“The culture at the moment around IRBs isn’t that great. There’s a lot of the old ‘no, no, you girls don’t do that, it’s too heavy - we’ll do it for you’ from the boys,” Conway says. “We want to build the confidence of girls who may be hesitant to get into the boats; so they know it’s such good fun.”

Parry and Conway plan to do a lot more IRB training next summer, for both their summer work and their sport.

And they want to get another of their flatmates out in the boat. Kirstie Fairhurst, who’s studying accounting, is in a wheelchair, paralysed in a farm accident when she was four.

Fairhurst is an impressive sportswoman herself – having represented New Zealand in wheelchair basketball, and been part of the Paralympics handcycling programme. A top para swimmer, she’s also now competing in sit-skiing – and aiming for the Winter Paralympics.

“Kirstie spent the summer living with us at my parents’ place, and came to all of our events,” Conway says.

“We taught her to boogie board, and we really want to get her into the IRB next summer.”

In the meantime, while she’s working at Tauranga Hospital on placement this winter, Conway will be training the “newbie” lifeguards at the club. “I just want everyone to love it as much as we do.”

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