David McKenzie remembers the wild and terrible day that persuaded the people of tiny Port Campbell, in south-west Victoria, that they needed a lifesaving club.
A family from Colac, the Brassels, had driven to the coast for a day’s fishing. They climbed down the Beacon Steps, carved into a cliff just a few hundred metres from the centre of Port Campbell.
It was December 10, 1958.
A wave suddenly reared and swept a Brassel son into the sea. His mother leapt in to try saving the boy.
The family’s father, desperate, joined his wife and son struggling in the turbulent water.
Soon, most of Port Campbell’s people had hurried to the sea and gathered on the cliff. They were familiar with the sea, but they were helpless to save the family.
David McKenzie was 12 when he witnessed the tragedy.
“People were throwing car tyres and cake tins and anything that would float,” he recalls. “But it was no use.”
Like everyone else in Port Campbell, he knew how the story would end.
Port Campbell sits on one of the wildest stretches of coastline in the world.
It’s called the Shipwreck Coast for a reason. The town’s first lifesavers in the 19th century were a “rocket crew”, who would hurry to the latest wreck and fire a rocket attached to a rope over the foundered ship in the hope that seafarers aboard could be hauled to safety. Sometimes it worked.
But without proper lifesaving equipment and trained lifesavers at the ready, anyone like the Brassels unfortunate enough to find themselves tossed in the heaving waters off the cliffs had little chance of survival.
The tragedy was the catalyst for what became, in 1963, the creation of the Port Campbell Surf Lifesaving Club.
Young David McKenzie was a foundation member. He will be 74 next month, but he’s still patrolling the Port Campbell beach. His son, Scott McKenzie, is currently the club’s president.
Volunteering is a powerful tradition among many of the families of Port Campbell and the district.
It needs to be. This is a town of just 380 permanent residents. The lifesaving club has an astonishing 280 members these days, including young Nippers.
It draws members from towns and farms inland, too, but such a tiny population is required to spread its mercy over a broad and increasingly busy coastline.
Its region extends along the Great Ocean Road around 30 kilometres west to Childers Cove, and about the same distant east to Moonlight Head. Both these places were the scenes of old and terrible shipwrecks.
Within this area stands the world famous Twelve Apostles, 12 minutes east of Port Campbell.
“Last year 15,000 people were at the Apostles on a single day, and no one could move,” says Scott McKenzie.
Large numbers of the tourists who visit the Apostles are from overseas and have no concept of the dangers of this coast. Many of them jump safety fences to capture selfie pictures close to cliffs immediately above the ocean.
Here lie the nightmares of Port Campbell lifesavers, who consider it their duty to race to the rescue if they can get a boat out.
The 1963 meeting at which the club was formed was held at the town’s cafe, the Karoa, owned by the Younis family.
The patriarch, John Younis, was the first president. He died in 1985 but his son, Phillip, has been a club member for much of his life.
So when word came on Easter Sunday this year that a tourist from Singapore was in strife at a dangerous beach east of Port Campbell, Phillip Younis joined another father and son, Ross and Andrew Powell, in taking a club boat through big seas on a lifesaving mission.
The subsequent tragedy, when Ross and Andrew Powell drowned and Phillip Younis was winched to safety, seriously injured, is now the subject of a coroner’s inquest. The tourist was saved, uninjured.
It is a subject still too raw for Port Campbell residents to discuss in any detail with outsiders, and it was the subject of such intense media attention, nationally and internationally, that it seems intrusive to dwell on it.
Phillip Younis is home now from months of hospital treatment and counselling, and we find him at the lifesaving club with its view of the quite beautiful Port Campbell beach − a sheltered, cliff-lined inlet from the often-furious ocean.
“I was there and I know exactly what happened, and so I don’t have to go through the what-ifs and the rest of it,” he says, explaining that he has come to terms with the dreadful event.
“I’ve been told it’ll take about two years to recover physically, and I suppose it’ll take something like that for this community to start recovering emotionally, too.
“You’ve got to understand that just about everyone here has been drawn into this story. The local footy clubs, the board riders, well, everybody has come together to help after what happened because everybody knew those who we’ve lost.”
In a community this size, it is almost impossible not to be drawn into its stories … and volunteerism is at the core of just about everything.
Phillip Younis himself is the embodiment of the Port Campbell volunteering spirit. When he took to the sea to save a tourist, he was captain of the Port Campbell CFA brigade and a member of the local State Emergency Service. The Powells, father and son, were also in the fire brigade and the SES, like many others in the district.
“It’s just that if there’s a job to be done, it has to be done,” says Younis. “Then you go home.”
But when some did not come home this year, it was time for something else the community has always done: rallying around.
“It filtered right down to the kids in the district,” says David McKenzie.
“It was like losing members of the family. We had to put our arms around the children, and we’re still doing it.”
On and on, this little town remains ready to throw its arms around those at peril in the sea because, once, its people had to stand and watch, helpless, and decided it should never happen again, whatever the cost.
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Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.