Do We Need A Full-time Lifeguard Service?

Lanzarote was a fine vantage point for the curious coastal antics of the holidaymaker. One day at La Santa, double overhead rollers were breaking on to the rocks with a bevy of snap happy tourists playing skipping stones uncomfortably nearby, seemingly oblivious to the lingering threat beyond. Several days earlier, my brother and I had to drag a German tourist from the water when the current proved too difficult for him to navigate. I spoke to a local who told me that drownings occur frequently, but remain unreported to the masses – supposedly due to fears of the tourist industry suffering as a result.

Back to Cornish waters, and the beaches in my service were displaced of Lifeguards at the end of September. I have since been surfing, observing the throngs of people still flocking to the coasts and wondering about capability and accountability.

The decision to relieve the guards of duty flows from the received wisdom that at off-peak tourist periods there are fewer people in the water, with most of those in the sea being locals who should, and usually do have some knowledge of the area and prevailing conditions.

But this is not as straightforward as it seems. The surge in popularity of beach culture, particularly surfing, means that the Cornish ocean is a busy Mecca in the local and urban escapists’ map. The urbanites are known in some quarters as DFLs (Down From London types) and their frequent weekends away, combined with the school holidays and the year round availability of water sports, means that there is little reprieve for the ocean. Even in winter it’s a fair bet that many people in the water aren’t locals, and so knowledge of the sea and prevailing conditions cannot be assumed. So should the seasonal lifeguarding be replaced with an year-round presence? 

In my view, yes. The RNLI has recently announced that it will be assuming management of the beaches in West Penwith. While it is expected to run a longer season than we’ve been used to, I believe the time is right to end post-summer lifeguard absenteeism. It may seem absurd to place lifeguards on beaches where in a stormy blizzard they may not see a soul for days. However, it is dumbfounding to hear of yet more avoidable deaths – for example, the recent tragic cases in Portugal and Spain - as a result of the sea’s powerfully unpredictable ways. Most surfers I know have had to assist struggling water users in order to avoid tragedy (and some on more than one occasion), and many lifeguard’s skills have been called into action while off-duty. If they were on duty full-time, I’m positive such dreadful events would be less common.

Costing lives is a difficult process, and need is different from worst-case scenario panic. It means money pulled from other places, and priorities are notoriously difficult to define. And, of course, people need to exercise their common sense. If they avoid dangerous-looking oceans, ask the locals’ advice and proceed with utmost caution, the risk of a tragedy is minimised. But there’s no cure for drowning. We can only talk in terms of its prevention. Having a full-time lifeguard service might cost more money, but it is surely worth it even if one life is saved as a result.