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Famed Gold Coast lifeguard Warren Young hangs up the red speedos

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After 47 years patrolling some of the world’s most famous beaches, the Gold Coast chief lifeguard officially watched over his last surf break and the raising of the red and yellow beach flags today.

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If you’ve ever been or even planned a holiday to the sun-soaked Gold Coast, chances are you’ve heard of Warren Young.

Employed as a professional lifeguard at the Gold Coast since 2003 and Chief Lifeguard since 1975, Young’s retirement Friday was marked by Mayor Tom Tate officially naming the Burleigh Heads lifeguard headquarters the ‘Warren Young Lifeguard Centre’.

Young is one of the peculiar Gold Coast breed who likely have salt water in their veins.

For decades, he has been the practical master of the lifeguard army conducting an average of between 12,000 and 17,000 rescues a year, as well as thousands more preventative actions.

He has been in charge of those who keep the beaches safe for everyone, from those just willing to dip a toe in the ocean to the leagues of avid swimmers and surfers drawn to Australia’s favourite tourist destination.

He’s also been a spiritual leader for the beach people tribe devoted to the surf, sand and sun lifestyle.

Starting each day with his 5:30am beach swim ritual, Young has dedicated his life to care of the people and the ocean along the Gold Coast’s spectacular 52km coastal strip.

“If you love people and you love the ocean and you’ve got the skills, it’s a really rewarding  job,” Young said.

“Not many people get feedback from their jobs.  We get feedback, a lot of people do say thanks.  They say thanks for watching my children, thanks for keeping us safe.”

Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate said Young’s service enhanced the city’s reputation.

“The city’s reputation for beach safety, friendliness and the ambassadorship that Warren has created through the lifeguards, our reputation has gone ahead leaps and bounds,” Tate said.

“He is the chief ambassador, the chief lifeguard, the chief that everybody loves.  Have a look at outstanding excellence, courage and the amount of people he’s saved, go to the dictionary look at the word ‘hero’ and those three things are what’s there.”

Having managed the largest professional lifeguard service in Australia with a budget of $9.5 million and 39 permanent staff and 140 seasonal staff in 2021, Young said he had witnessed change from a unique Gold Coast perspective.

When he joined the lifeguard service in 1973, there were only around a dozen beaches that were patrolled.

“There was a lot of development north of Surfers and it was called ‘death alley’ because people were drowning as there were no lifeguards in between,” he said.

“We knew the place was growing like topsy. There wasn’t a lot of backup support in the old days.  We followed the people to know where we should be doing surveillance.”

Fearful of how dangerous the strip could be and how difficult it was to patrol it with mobile surveillance, he proposed a tower plan.

In 1989, Young and his team designed the system that led to the installation of the Coast’s  40 iconic yellow patrol towers.

It started with a tower at Staghorn Avenue in Surfers, now Tower 36, then Narrowneck, Breaker Street at Main Beach, and eventually right up and down the Coast.

As well as the patrol tower innovation, the Gold Coast Lifeguard Service was the first in Australia to get jet skis after local lifeguards saw them in operation helping save swimmers and surfers in Hawaii.

The jet skis were a massive step up from the standard rescue equipment of a rescue board and a reel, line, and belt on the back of a patrol vehicle.

In 1978 Young also pioneered lifeguard tests for Gold Coast.

One test involves a 750m swim, 1600m run, and 750m rescue board paddle in under 26 minutes. An alternative  M-shaped course requires lifeguards to punch through the break three times.

The annual test is still carried out today by all City of Gold Coast lifeguards.

Young has completed the physical test every year.

It’s not just the physical conditioning that ensures lifeguards are every-ready to go to the aid of a swimmer or surfer in trouble, Young said.

“To be successful in this job, you’ve got to enjoy looking at the ocean. It might look like we are just standing or sitting there looking out to the horizon, but we are watching a lot of things,” he said.

“We’re computing waves, if there’s people with medical issues, if there’s people who might be struggling more due to their height or weight, the levels of abilities, which way the current is going, and which would be the fastest route out to people if we had to act.”

Young’s long career of service has been recognised with the Public Service Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honour list in 1999, a role in the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Queen’s Baton relay and hosting dignitaries including  Princess Anne and the Duke of Edinburgh when visiting the city.

Most recently, Young was awarded Gold Coast Citizen of the Year at the 2021 Australia Day Awards.

From close of business today, the Gold Coast’s beaches will be under the control of new Chief Lifeguard Chris Maynard, who has been in the service for 37 years.

Young plans to spend his first day of retirement by heading to the beach.

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