In beachside Manly, you need only look at the streets near the beach on a Sunday morning to judge the time of year. In official winter, the early morning streets are almost deserted, with just a few hardy church-goers and a few even hardier all-year swimmers. If there is no breeze, middle-aged couples start to appear on the streets after about 8.30, strolling down to an outdoor cafe for coffee and croissants in the early sun, but they have the streets largely to themselves.
That is, they have the streets to themselves until October. Then suddenly there are Nippers, all over the place in that once-quiet half hour, just before 9 am. There will be Nippers every Sunday, at least until the edge gets back on the breeze as the days wind down into March. But before I explain in detail about the Nippers, a small piece of etymology, to establish that, whatever else they are, Nippers are not ankle-biting insects, crabs, or ill-mannered street dog, and never have been.
Contrary to the assumptions of landlubbers, the capstan of a sailing ship did not have the anchor cable wound around it. The capstan had a spliced loop of cable running from it to a point further aft in the ship, and then back again. When the capstan was turned, this fixed cable circled around and around. The incoming anchor cable was tied, or ‘nipped’, to this closed loop.
While the grown men on board turned the capstan, the ship's boys nipped the two cables together, tying them with a short piece of line at the incoming end, walking along, untying the lines at the other end, and running back to nip the cables again. These boys were called, naturally enough, nippers.
The Australian language developed in the age of sail, when every new arrival had to come by sea, spending three months or more on board ship, and acquiring nautical expressions all the while. Most Australians today are unaware of this nautical heritage, and would be quite taken aback if they realised just how many seafaring terms we use, by and large. (A ship with its bows pointing into the wind is taken aback, one running before the breeze is sailing by and large.)
A nipper is another sailors' term. Literally, a nipper is a young person, strictly a boy trainee, though the term is also taken just to mean ‘children’. This last, more general, sense is used almost exclusively by Australian men, as in ‘the wife and nippers’. That former bastion of male chauvinism, the Surf Life Saving Association (SLSA) now welcomes women into its ranks at all levels (there are even all-female boat crews, as you can see), but some of the old terminology remains. Thanks to the SLSA, we have a third meaning of the term, a cross between the other two. Capitalised Nippers are young trainee Life Savers.
Life Savers are adult volunteers who patrol our surf beaches. They wear funny little skull caps of yellow and orange, and they require surfers to swim between the orange and yellow flags that mark the safest part of the beach. They rescue those who get into difficulties, and they provide first aid for those who are hurt or stung by bluebottles or other unpleasant sea creatures. Most of the younger ones started as Nippers.
From the first Sunday in October, the Nippers burst into view in surfside streets, all along the coast, driven to the early morning beach by their parents. Suddenly, slightly confused would-be breakfasters find themselves surrounded by a rising tide of chattering, piping children, all wearing light blue skull-caps that tie under the chin.
Just before 9 am, this blue tide takes on the nature of a torrent, a small blue tsunami. At this time, the wiser would-be breakfasters shelter in doorways, or run swiftly up the nearest blind alley. Soon after, the less wise can be seen, staggering, ashen-faced, bedraggled and wild-eyed into bars, croaking for succour and sustenance. When the Nippers pass by, discretion is the better part of valour.
Down on the sand, very slightly ordered chaos reigns where a horde of children from six to twelve has been scattered around the beach. A few of them can be seen venturing into the water, or chasing each other through the shallows, digging holes, throwing seaweed, or just chatting with friends. Slowly they are divided up into age groups and sent to the various sports that will ready them, that will train them and socialise them for the future role they may one day play as members of a beach patrol.
Some of the events are quite simple, like the beach sprint, a run over the soft dry sand at the back of the beach. Others, like the ‘flag race’ are more complicated. That is, the principles remain simple, but complex rules have evolved to stop the equally complex tricks that have evolved and been passed down through two generations of Nipperdom. The ‘flags’ are lengths of plastic garden hose, poked into the sand. The children lie on the sand, face down and heads away from the flags. At a given signal, the children leap up and run to grab a flag. There are always one or two fewer flags than there are children, so the slowest are eliminated, just as in musical chairs. And like that party game, the flag race goes on until only one child remains.
Separate beach events are run for boys and girls, but all of the events are common to both sexes. When it comes to the swimming races and board races, they all take off together, but the winning boys and girls are recorded separately.
Safety is the main consideration, and unwary parents who have remained visible on the beach are often driven into the water to act as a safety group during the water events. They don plain orange skull caps, and stand along the line of the race. The children swim (or paddle in the board race) from the beach, along the line of waiting adults, out to a buoy at the back of the breakers, where they turn, go along to a second buoy, and then rush back to the beach, trying to catch a wave as they do.
Clearly we would not put the very young ones through this ordeal. The aim is to develop their confidence, so several parents are sent out, thigh-deep, with a length of rope. The rope is stretched out, parallel to the beach, and the young children rush piping down the beach in a frenzied horde.
Rounding the first parent, the midget Nippers buffet and bruise him as they go by (experience dictates that this role be played by a well-padded male because men have better scrum experience). Then they wade and splash, shrieking and yelling, along past the standing safety parents. Finally, they abrade the other end-parent before squeaking their relief, all the way back to shore. This is still describable as ‘surfing’, for they also surf who only stand and wade . . .
For older children, there is also a ‘run-swim-run’ event, but by 11 am, the sun is stronger, and the tourists and day trippers are starting to arrive. It is time for the Nippers to shut up shop and head for home, until next Sunday. The blue tide reverses through the streets, catching the newly recovered former would-be breakfasters unawares once more, as they venture back into the streets.