Respect Lifeguards

First off, let’s get one thing straight. It’s not Baywatch. For those shocked by this revelation, I’m not sure that I’m sorry. It is, though, a classic and alarmingly common misconception. I’ll admit that I have been known to find a compliment or two in the Baywatch comparison,  but the fact of the matter is there’s a vast difference between public perception and occupational reality. If I can’t entirely blame a fantasy US TV series for priming popular opinion on what we are or should be, I can, with iron-cast conviction, say this: lifeguards are not superfluous pot-headed beach bums or posey himbos. To brand us in this way is an insult and if you want to know why, read on.

The lifeguard service (and let’s all remember that a service it is) is provided by a collection of highly trained, multi-skilled beings motivated by a genuine desire to protect and preserve beyond ego and image. The job may appear to be an easy breeze, but consideration of what is involved even at the inception point should spark the burgeoning of at least some respect. Induction comprises a series of static physical tests – beach runs, surf paddles and sea swims, weighted dummy tows, timed 400m swims, spinal turns and lifts. Follow this with a catalogue of first aid and advanced resuscitation – the mastering of defibrillation, oxygen and suction training alongside emergency action protocols, radio communications and beach management theory. Add equipment handling – ATVs, jet skis and R.I.B.s – and it’s a touch more complicated than the one-day refresher some may erroneously assume is all it takes.

Prerequisites accomplished and theory over, managing a beach is actually a pretty heavy business. It is a professional practice which, like so much else in life, is also an art. A beach is far more than a stretch of sand fringed by ocean. There are rips, tides, swells, banks, channels, currents, washes, pools and rocks to contend with. But once the topography has been tackled and conditions deftly considered, there lurks the biggest danger of all: people.

Today’s beach populace comprises a vast and diverse crowd. Bathers, surfers, kite-surfers, wind surfers, wake boarders, jet skiers, boaters, sailors, kayakers, sand buggiers…The list is seemingly endless.When someone once told me that there should be separate areas for all of these people (including dogs), I don’t think he had quite grasped the entire picture.

The bottom line is that our job is to control (a word I use advisedly) and maintain an environment where all people can safely enjoy the marvels of our coastline. We are at the mercy of nature’s caprices but try our utmost to figure out the best and safest way for people to enjoy the sea. We’re not deliberate killjoys. Sure, yesterday might’ve been flat, but today is a different story. Things change, and when it’s overhead and ripped to hell trust me when I insist – “keep out please.”

We expect to have to explain the situation, but do not want our decision to be debated.
Question asking is fine, and answering questions an accepted part of the job. But timing is crucial. Whilst on the way to rescue someone from an impromptu flash rip, you’ll only become hotly undesired human traffic by lurching at us with some random chestnut such as, “What time will the dolphins be here today?”

Which reminds me of what we’re not. We are not some strange breed of coast-dwelling, fortune-telling sages. We’re not meteorologists, oceanographers or geologists. We’re just a bunch of people with a healthy love and better-than-average knowledge of most things oceanic. Through intuition and experience, we can guide, inform, suggest and indeed, direct you. However, there is a marked difference between experienced and expert and while I can tell you that it will rain soon, I am unfortunately unable to give you a precise ETA or exact period of duration for said anticipated precipitation.
Having said that, we are often entertained by non-offensive public ignorance. When a man once rushed to tell me that a giant squid had landed on my beach, I was genuinely amused to encounter an innocuous little jellyfish on the water’s edge. It’s the beach-goer’s childlike inquisitiveness and pleasure-seeking that we appreciate (and aim to preserve), rather than our being afflicted with a superiority complex.

The problem, it seems to me, is that it all gets a little Carnivalesque. Going to the beach somehow amounts to a break from everyday norms and restrictions. People think the usual rules don’t apply and a weird type of madness abounds. Those who ordinarily don’t even walk anywhere suddenly believe themselves to be the next Kelly Slater/Ian Thorpe/Linford Kristie. I’ve seen it happen. It’s great to have a newfound energy for sports (not to mention, revived swimwear fashion, including Speedos worn twenty years ago), but there are limits (and good taste). Take it from me: flouting them rapidly spirals into danger.

Quite why our profession is so regularly called into question - and our skills refuted outright by people who have barely set foot on sand – is a mystery that perhaps a land-locked pen-pusher might be on the brink of solving.. But the crux of why we are there is, quite simply, to help. We work by a code of constantly reviewed procedural operations that have repeatedly saved lives.

Ok, fine. Why the rant? It’s because we cop a lot of flack, and there’s no need for it. Although the job generally attracts a laid-back crowd it doesn’t automatically follow that we are idle morons. It may sometimes appear that we reside on our derrieres all day, but the point is that we are always thinking, always looking. If we were on constant high alert, sprinting around frantically expecting death at every turn (as opposed to our standard cool strut), you will not enjoy your beach experience and actual emergencies could be undermined. Fraught nerves will also not do us any favours when the responsibility and accountability of thousands of peoples’ lives rests on our shoulders for an entire season or more.

One last thought. The lifeguards I’ve been lucky enough to work with – past and present – include doctors, lawyers, writers, paramedics, policemen, sports scientists, professional skaters and surfers, world surf life saving champions and international swimmers. So next time you pass one, refrain from clichéd typecasting and remember this: you might well be standing next to an Olympic contender, or maybe a trainee solicitor, or perhaps a legendary surfer, or maybe a world-class athlete.

Who knows? You’ll probably never find out. But one thing’s for certain. That David Hasselhof/Pamela Anderson doppelganger could seriously save your arse.