Surf Rescue Boat (IRB) Winter Racing at Apollo Bay

The inflatable rescue boat (IRB) is an essential tool in surf life saving in Australia (and many other countries). It was introduced in the early 1970s and eventually replaced the iconic wooden surfboat. Competitive rowing of the traditional surf boats remains a strong and spectacular feature of surf life saving in Australia. IRBs are used for rescue and in competition. Racing of powered craft from the shore in sizeable surf is fast and spectacular. The IRB is commonly referred to as a rubber duck or rubber ducky.

Surf life savers in Victoria and other states compete in a 5 round IRB state competition every year from May to July after the close of the summer surf life saving competition. After the state championships there is an Australian championship in July, held in a different state every year. While there are different categories of competition, they are all variations of patient rescue simulation.

The minimum age for drivers, crew and patients in IRB competition events is 17, 16 and 15 years respectively. On the starters gun driver and crew run to the boat which is being held in position in the shallows by handlers (usually 2, but this can be increased to four if conditions warrant). As soon as the driver and/or crew make visible contact with the boat the handlers must release all contact with the boat and provide no further assistance to the driver and crew. The driver starts the motor when fully aboard and the crewman must be in contact with the IRB when the motor is started. The driver has a pontoon handle for his left hand (his right hand being on the throttle grip) and a foot strap for his right foot. The crewman has a bow-rope handle and a pontoon handle to hold on to, and foot strap for his left foot. The patient crouches in the IRB holding on to the pontoon life line. The crewman can be seated or standing and can move his weight around to assist in turning the boat and negotiating swell. The crewman can leave his normal position for patient pickup.

The rubber duck proceeds out to sea around the buoy anti-clockwise, and picks up the patient who must have hands clasped or one hand holding the opposite wrist. I observed patients with their arms forming a loop above their head to facilitate pickup. Upon returning to shore the motor must be shut down then the crewman assumes control of the IRB while the driver runs to the finish line.

On the weekend of June 11/12 round 5 of the Victorian IRB competition was held at Apollo Bay. The format was IRB rescue where a boat with driver and one crew race out to collect a patient waiting in the water at a buoy then return to shore.

These photos were taken during a number of heats on the Sunday and are not in any particular order.

Sea conditions on race day

Surf breaking in Mounts Bay near Marengo
Marengo viewed across the Barham River and Mounts Bay (the next bay south from Apollo Bay where the comp was held).
Surf breaking 12kms east of Apollo Bay
A point break not far east of Apollo Bay. There was some swell about.
Surf lines as seen looking down Cawood St Apollo Bay
Apollo Bay conditions (a short distance north of where the comp was held).
View to the east down Cawood St.

Race start

'Patients' being ferried to buoys out to sea for pickup by race boats
‘Patients’ being ferried out to the buoys in preparation for the next heat.
IRBs ready for racing
IRB handlers keeping the boats in position immediately prior to a start.
IRB race crew just after the starter's gun
Drivers and crew sprinting to their IRBs at the start of a heat.
IRB crew running through shallows to their waiting rescue boats
IRB crew about to head out through the shore break
Handlers about to relinquish control of the IRBs to drivers and crew.
IRB crew getting into their boats
Drivers and crew entering and starting their boats.
The driver of this jet ski was on safety patrol around the event for its entire duration and appeared to enjoy his work.

Out through the shorebreak

IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
The IRBs are clearly not underpowered. The swell was only moderate but hitting it at speed not long after starting moving was enough for these IRBs to achieve the deck angles shown. A collective gasp went up from the crowd when this occurred. The important role of the crewman in keeping weight at the nose of the boat is clear from this shot. This photo is a cropped section of the photo immediately following.
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
Airborne IRBs were a common sight during the short fast trip from the shore to the buoys.
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
In aviation terms this IRB appears to be executing a 30° bank to the left.
It landed safely clear of other boats.
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
Punching through the breaking wave and staying relatively level and under power v hitting it a little faster and getting some air. While getting airborne is spectacular and a real crowd-pleaser, it does seem to entail a period with the propeller out of the water during which time it is providing no thrust, with only momentum moving the boat forward as it necessarily decelerates a little. I suspect that any boat with a high deck angle would also have high aerodynamic drag in that position which would also slow it down a little. I would be interested to know which method of dealing with breaking waves is the best way to get to the buoy in the quickest time.
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
The constantly cruising jet ski on safety patrol was keeping a close eye on all competitors.
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
Appearing to see-saw on a wave about to break – but only for a millisecond.
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
The spirit of competition.
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
8 IRBs bunched up jockeying for position as they race out through the shorebreak
The field starting to spread out.
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak
IRBs getting some air while racing out through the shorebreak

Patient pickup

On the right some ‘patients’ can be seen with their hands clasped as required in readiness for the pickup.
IRB at the turn buoy picking up the patient without stopping
The pickup very much happens on the run. This struck me as a particularly skilful part of the race on the part of all participants. I didn’t see any boat miss the patient on the first pass. If that occurred, the boat must round the buoy a second time for the pickup.
IRB at the turn buoy picking up the patient without stopping
Patient being pulled into the IRB over the port side as required.

Back to shore

IRBs with patient and crew on boar racing back to shore
Head-to-head full throttle straight-line race back to shore.
IRBs with patient and crew on boar racing back to shore
IRBs with patient and crew on boar racing back to shore
The IRB can travel faster than a breaking wave.
IRBs with patient and crew on boar racing back to shore
One way of briefly minimising hull drag on this boat with only the stern and prop in the water.
IRBs with patient and crew on boar racing back to shore

Sprint finish on the sand

Back to shore with crew member racing to the finish line
Drivers sprinting to the finish line. I saw some competitors gain/lose a place in this part of the race. Crewmen and ‘patients’ remain with the IRBs in the shallows.
Children finding bull kelp more interesting than IRB racing
IRB racing was not the only attraction on the beach. The time honoured activity for children of hauling bull kelp across the sand kept these three occupied. The joy of the middle child was apparently sufficient for her to get a little air too.

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