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Bruce Hopkins – Leading The Lifeguards

By Dan Hutton on January 21, 2011 in People

Photo: Goldie

During the month The Beast caught up with Waverley’s head lifeguard, Bruce ‘Hoppo’ Hopkins…

How’s the summer been thus far in Bondi?
The summer this year has been pretty busy compared to normal. The last few years, especially over Christmas/New Year, we’ve had bad weather and what-not but this year it has been really busy. On Christmas Day we did about 95 rescues and we’ve had plenty of rescues throughout the Christmas and New Year period. We probably did over 300 rescues in that two?week period.

How many rescues do you reckon you do over a summer at Bondi alone?
At Bondi alone we’d do anything from around 1,500 to 2,000 for the summer so it’s right up there with anywhere in the world.

So people aren’t learning from the mistakes of the past?
It’s getting better. But the majority of our rescues are of overseas visitors, probably because they don’t understand surf safety since they don’t have the conditions at home like we do here, so there’s no need for them to really learn that sort of stuff. When they come here to Australia they think it’s the same as at home. They don’t realise how dangerous it can be here in Australia and especially at Bondi. I’ve found a lot of people don’t want to swim where the waves are, so they see the waves breaking and go, “I’m not going there, I’m going to that spot where it’s nice and smooth and flat”, not knowing that’s where the rips are, and that’s where the water is pulling them out.

Have you had any rescues of particular note this season?
Yeah, we’ve had some rescues down at ‘Backpackers’ Rip’ where the guys have had to rush down there and a few people have been pulled up by their hair, last minute sort of stuff. They go under pretty quick. The problem we’ve got here is we get a hell of a lot of people that are non-swimmers and I reckon they’d struggle if you put them in the deep end of a swimming pool. You’ve got to see it to believe it. They honestly can’t even float. As soon as they go from waist deep standing up and then fall into the hole and can’t touch the bottom, they just go straight under.

Have you always lived in the Waverley area?
Yeah, I grew up at Bronte and I’ve been around here all my life. I’ve always hung around between Bronte, Tamarama and Bondi.

Which is your favourite beach?
I’d have to say Bronte. Bronte’s my favourite because I grew up there and I’ve got a lot of good memories as a kid growing up there with Box (Rod Kerr) and a lot of the other guys that are working here now like Harries (Anthony Carroll) and everyone. The young guys too, I’ve watched them grow up as well over at Bronte.

It must be great working with all your mates?
Yeah, we’re all mates that work together and like I said, most of the guys I’ve either grown up with and we’re working together or the younger guys I’ve sort of watched grow up. Like Gonzo (Troy Quinlan), I used to baby sit him down the beach. His parents would go for a run and a swim and I’d just be down there babysitting him when he was about four years old. Now he’s working with us. Quinn Darragh’s the same. The funny thing is Maxi (Trent Maxwell) was born in September 1991 and I started working as a lifeguard September 1991, so for Maxi’s whole life I’ve been working as a lifeguard. When you look at stuff like that it’s really crazy.

Who’s the oldest lifeguard working in Waverley?
That would be H (Harry Nightingale). H is now 60.

You’re 42 now, can you see yourself lifeguarding for another 18 years?
I don’t know. 18 years is a long time. I’ve done 20 now so I don’t know. As long as I’m still enjoying it and the body holds up because the physical test these days is way harder than when I first started. You really have to keep yourself fit and in good shape to get through every year.

Which suburb are you living in these days?
I live down at Clovelly, just on the other side of McPherson Street, so on the border of Bronte and Cloey.

So you’re living the quiet life?
Yeah, it’s nice and quiet over there.

What do you love about living in the Eastern Suburbs?
It’s a good lifestyle and it’s close to some of the best beaches on the east coast, I reckon. It’s close to the city; in fact it’s close to everything. There are a lot of events happening around the Eastern Suburbs too so you’re right in the whole hub of everything. Plus there are all the tourists that come over here, so you get to mix with a range of people from all around the world.

Is there anything that you don’t like about the area?
The only thing I don’t like is it’s really getting overpopulated now, especially with the traffic. Some days if I come through at 9am, I’ve probably got to come past about three or four schools from Cloey to Bondi and it can take me half an hour to go about 5 kilometres.

How did you get started in lifeguarding?
I started from school. I was working at a radio station, 2GB, for four years and then I was doing a lot of competition at the time and I needed a job that fitted in more with where I could train and have a lifestyle that I could fit in with my competition. One of the guys that was working down at Bronte at the time said, “Why don’t you try out next year for the lifeguards?” and so I did. You can train at work and you’ve got time in the mornings and after you finish work. So I tried out and got on as a casual in the first year.

Have you had any other jobs over the years since you started 20 years ago?
No, not really. I mean all I’ve really done is a bit of extras work and a bit of TV work on the side but apart from that it’s about all I’ve done.

What were you doing at 2GB?
I was working in the football team. Greg Hartley and Peter Peters used to call the football for 2GB and I’d be on the sideline and I’d run around for them during the afternoons. They used to do the 12 until 6 broadcast and I’d have to line-up a whole lot of interviews beforehand. I’d run around and grab the players when they’d come in and they’d cross to the box and they’d do the interview. I’d be there with the mic and setting them all up, which was great fun because I could chat to all the players. I got to know blokes like Peter Sterling and Brett Kenny from the Parramatta team of the ‘80s, then Laurie Daley and Ricky Stewart from the Canberra team of the late ’80s/early ‘90s and the Brisbane team with Langer and all those guys. It was a fun four years.

How much has the lifeguarding job changed down at Bondi since they brought the cameras in and made you blokes ridiculously famous?
When I first started it was really just a job you did before you went and got a ‘real job’. The best thing about the show is that it has shown that lifeguarding is a profession and we have helped save lives through educating our viewers about surf safety.

When I became the head lifeguard I could see different things that I wanted to change and I could see that we had to change that perception and make lifeguarding more of a career job. That was the aim in the first place before we even knew the cameras were coming along. We changed the culture of the lifeguard service here and by doing that when Benny (Bondi Rescue producer Ben Davies) came to me to say, “Look, I think there’s a show in what we’re doing down here”, we could do it.

If it had been back in the ’90s I don’t think we would have been able to bring cameras in. So it was probably perfect timing. We had some of the best watermen in the world, we had all the best equipment, I just think we were lacking a profile. People didn’t really understand what lifeguards did, so the show has really just finished off the whole jigsaw puzzle. I think it’s in 55 countries around the world now and it’s shown everybody what lifeguards do. It’s not just beach bum job. It’s a fair dinkum job and it’s hard work.

Back in the ’90s there was a guy that used to ride past us at Bondi on his pushy and he used to yell out all the time and say, “You blokes have the best job in the world, sitting at the beach every day perving at chicks!” One day he came past and I pulled him over because about two hours prior to that I had a girl jump off the cliff ? suicide. When I got to her and rolled her over she must have clipped her head, because she only had half a head and I had to pull her back in, so when I pulled him over I said, “Look, mate, it’s a good job but this is what we did about two hours ago,” and it blew him away because he thought we just hung out at the beach.

The other thing the show has been able to do is educate people. There was a woman who sent a letter from the Northern Territory and she had a 3 or 4 year?old boy that fell into the backyard swimming pool. She found him on the bottom, pulled him out and started doing resuscitation on him. She’d never done resuscitation in her life, not trained or anything and just started doing what she had seen on ‘Bondi Rescue’. It was a pretty moving letter. She was thanking us for doing the TV show because if she hadn’t watched the show she said she probably just would have gone into a mass panic but she gave it a go and called an ambulance and they ended up reviving him and now he’s back to 100%. The initial stages of her doing the resuscitation probably saved him. Knowing things like that makes it feel worth it; it’s a great feeling.

Do you get recognised everywhere you go these days?
Yeah, we get a lot more photos down here at the tower and a lot more people coming up to us to sign stuff when you go to different places. It’s amazing how many people actually recognise us. I was down at Coogee on New Year’s Eve for the fireworks and I was just sitting there, it was half dark, and people were coming up from Ireland and England and recognising me and getting photos and I was thinking, “How the hell do you recognise me?  It’s dark!” It blows me away that people really take that much notice. When I went to Dubai it was insane. I couldn’t even walk into the pub. Once they realised it was Harries and me and Yatesy (Kris Yates) over there they went nuts.

Who is the most famous person you’ve met down at Bondi?
I’d probably have to say Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar because I’ve always been a huge cricket fan. I played a bit when I was at school and in my teenage years and I’ve watched him over the years and it’s amazing to see someone of his status. So he’d have to be the number one, followed close by the Hoff (David Hasselhoff) who came into the tower at the start of January.

You must get a lot of attention from the ladies given that you blokes get around with your shirts off all the time?
Yeah, we probably get a lot more attention than usual.

It must be a burden…
Yes, it’s pretty tough. I mean, everyone loves their ego to be stroked from time to time, don’t they? Anyone says they don’t is lying. It’s always good to get attention from the girls.

Who gets the most attention from the birds?
Harries plays it up a bit but I don’t know if it’s more from him playing up or the girls coming to him. Maxi gets a fair bit because he’s at the same age as a lot of the teenage girls that are watching the show. And Whippet (Ryan Clark) gets a fair bit on the back of his ‘Home and Away’ days.

Out of the all the lifeguards, who is the biggest joker?
Beardy (Daniel McLaughlin) would be the biggest rev up and shit stirrer, I reckon. If ever there’s a prank going on or a smart arse remark being made, Beardy will be in there behind it somewhere.

Who loves the television cameras the most?
Everyone has there moments I think. I could probably single a few blokes out but I don’t want to offend anyone and at the end of the day I’m probably just as guilty as the rest of them!

Are there many perks to the job, particularly since it has become a TV sensation?
I’ve got to admit it’s opened up a hell of a lot of doors for some of us guys and it’s been good to do stuff outside of being a lifeguard, whether it’s been endorsing a product or doing other types of promotional work. I’ve even done team-building talks to companies and a bit of the speakers’ circuit as well. We’ve had a few trips overseas and I’ve got a start to go to the G’day USA event over in LA later this month. We’ll probably be going back to Dubai again this year too,

What can we expect from the show in 2011?
The show this year will be a heap of action. I think we’ve caught about three thieves bag snatching so there’s going to be a fair bit about the stealing. I remember saying something along the lines of,  “There’s no use coming down to Bondi if you want to steal something. If you do, just walk straight into the tower because you’re just going to get caught anyway.” There are heaps of rescues too. There’s a really heavy spinal, which we haven’t had for a long, long time. We get a lot of spinals but they’re mainly precautionary or a person might have fractured their vertebrae, but this guy, a Brazilian guy, was practising a somersault and landed on his head. He had no feeling from the neck down right from the start. We found out after that he’s a full quadriplegic now. So that episode’s going to be pretty full on.

We’ve also got a fair few practical jokes in there too though so it’s not all doom and gloom.
Are there any new lifeguards on board that are likely to get a bit of screen time?
We’ve got a new trainee, Max Ayshford. He’s picked up a new nickname, which he’s not real happy with. We call him ‘Marbles’. When he talks it sounds like he’s got a whole lot of marbles in his mouth. It seems to be sticking at the moment and you can’t have two ‘Maxis’ so hopefully it sticks.

Where’s he from?
He’s a young surfer from Maroubra, He’s on the junior pro circuit trying to crack it into the big time. He’s probably hedging his bets. He’s come on as a trainee lifeguard to get a little bit of experience there in case he doesn’t make it in surfing, because it’s a pretty cutthroat industry.

When does the new season of ‘Bondi Rescue’ go to air?
It goes to air at the end of January. They’re putting us into Sunday nights at 8:00pm. Sunday TV is the big night so we’re pretty pumped. It’ll be Modern Family at 7.30pm, then us at 8pm, then the new remake of Hawaii Five-O.

What do you get up to when you’re not working down at the beach?
I do a lot of ski paddling or I go and play golf on my days off just to get away from the beach. I try not to get to the beach too much on my days off. You sort of get sick of the beach but if there’s a nice wave I’ll go down there.

Do you lifeguards support any charities in particular?
Our main one would be the Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick. We support them throughout the year but our big event is at Easter when we go around through all the wards handing out Easter eggs to the kids. We also raise money for them through the lifeguard iron man race that we do, which Itchy (Liam Taylor) organises. Whatever we raise is usually matched by the Bondi Rescue production company too. We support breast cancer awareness too. We lit the tower up pink one year for them and we got around in pink dick-stickers and made fools of ourselves, but all for a good cause.

Do you have any advice for youngsters looking to get into lifeguarding?
Anyone that wants to get into lifeguarding these days should get out in the waves and get their water skills up. Get good in the water, observe what the water’s doing and the conditions, and learn from that. We try to train the guys to see what’s going to happen before it even happens. We’re not really reactive, we’re trying to prevent incidents before they even happen.

In an ideal world what does the future hold for Bruce Hopkins?
I’m happy doing what I’m doing now as a lifeguard. I’ve got a few business opportunities that I’ve been working on that I’m hoping will come off in the future. I could be here for another 18 years being a head lifeguard and working the beach but if the body doesn’t hold up I need to have something else behind me that I can go into. I always want to be involved with the lifeguards in some way but it would be good to kick off a few different businesses as I get older, still focussed around water safety though. Maybe a consulting role would be the way to go.