My family were enjoying a seaside holiday in Bude in Cornwall. I was splashing in and out of the water and among the rocks when I fell and gashed my chin badly. As if by magic, a lifeguard appeared, stopped the bleeding and patched me up. I remember thinking, at the age of six, he really was a superhero. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to find out what the job of a lifeguard actually entails.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) lifeguards patrol more than 150 beaches in England and Wales and last year dealt with nearly 14,000 incidents, assisting over 16,000 people. But is it all anything like the glamorous heroics of TV’s Baywatch, with David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson coming to the rescue?
Lifesavers: Natalie Pinkham meets up with Jimmy ahead of her day patrolling Polzeath beach
I had heard that you needed to be fit to be a lifeguard. In fact, a superspecific level of fitness is a prerequisite – you need to do a 200m pool swim in under three minutes 30 seconds; a 400m pool swim in under seven-and-a-half minutes; 25m pool swim underwater and 25m surface swim consecutively in under 50 seconds, then a 200m beach run in less than 40 seconds.
You have to be 16 or over (no upper age limit as long as you pass fitness and eye tests). They are on the beach eight hours a day, seven days a week during the summer season. Was I up to it?
There was only one way to find out. I travelled to one of Britain’s most exposed coastlines in Cornwall to work at a popular tourist destination, Polzeath beach.
9.30am: We meet Phil Hill, manager of all the lifeguard units in Cornwall and Devon, and collect the RNLI Jeep from the area support centre in Wadebridge which services all beaches in the area. When you consider that on Polzeath beach last year the lifeguards dealt with 236 incidents and assisted 723 people, you recognise how important a role they serve. It costs 580 a year to train an RNLI lifeguard and 450 a year to equip them. Yet the RNLI is funded almost entirely by voluntary donations.
Lifeguards are first responders to the ambulance service, which means they are qualified to use defibrillators, administer oxygen and treat casualties with spinal injuries, and prioritise responses to medical emergencies. The initial care and support they offer before the air or road ambulance arrives is often the difference between someone surviving or not.
Surf’s Up!: Natalie keeps an eye out for trouble as she takes to the waves on the North Cornwall coast
9.45am: We arrive at the beach. There are about 30 people there, but it is quickly filling up. On an absolute scorcher, Phil tells me there can be around 5,000 holidaymakers on the beach, with between 750 and 1,000 in the water. He introduces me to John, who has been working on Polzeath beach for 20 years. John says that in all his time on the beach, he has been involved in only four mass rescues – ‘mass’ meaning ten or more endangered swimmers or surfers at any one time.
He says: ‘Conditions are good today but the sea is unpredictable and can change quickly. It’s really important for people who are planning to swim to visit a lifeguarded beach and to swim between the red and yellow flags.’
Problems can arise from the incoming tide if there is a sudden tidal surge – a rapid rise in the water level. This can lift people off the sand and towards the rocks. Thankfully, it is a rare scenario but one that can happen in minutes.
Swimmers tend to panic, making it harder to remain afloat. In these unlikely but perilously dangerous circumstances, John explains that prioritising highest-risk casualties is the way to work. Lifeguards will head for those closest to the rocks and those without any sort of flotation device. By now there are around 200 swimmers in the water, so we have to put up the yellow and red flags swiftly to demarcate where they can go. Black and white flags show where it is safe to surf.
Lifeguards assess the conditions on the day, which includes the size of waves, wind speed and tide, in order to separate zones for swimmers and surfers. We also manoeuvre an inshore rescue boat (IRB) to the water’s edge and do a radio check to make sure everything and everyone is in position.
10am: After signing on with the coastguard to let them know that six of us will be patrolling, we run through our equipment – two 4×4 patrol vehicles, one quad bike, one IRB, plus first-aid kits which include a defibrillator.
We are given a rota and move position hourly. Two guards go to the clifftop station, a great observation point giving an overview of the entire beach. Two more lifeguards drive the patrol vehicles positioned between the black and white flags. It is a far more structured environment than I’d imagined, and incredibly slick. For while you can’t prepare for a freak change in weather conditions, the lifeguards are on top of things. There is certainly no time to kick back.
10.05am: I go to the water’s edge, keeping an eye on the bathers while patrolling the rip currents, which can quickly drag bathers out to sea. Foam on the surface, rippled patches (where the water around is generally calm) and debris floating away from the beach are all signs of a rip current.
On Polzeath there is a strong rip which occurs at high tide on the right side of the beach. Phil tells me a saying popular among his fraternity: ‘A lifeguard has had a busy day if he made no rescues.’
This is because 99 per cent of what lifeguards do is about prevention of an incident. Therefore, it is key to stop the swimmers going into the rip, which will undoubtedly lead to panic and the risk of drowning. The water’s edge is clearly the busiest area for the lifeguards; we are told to be ready at any time to react to an incident. The guys up on the clifftop regularly radio down to us with potential problems.
To the rescue: Natalie runs along Polzeath Beach alongside her RNLI trainer Phil Hill
10.45am: I spot teenagers mucking about and encroaching into the surfers’ area. This is a dangerous place to be as when a surfer catches a wave, they can unwittingly plough into swimmers as their heads are barely visible amid the frothing waves. Lifeguard Jimmy gets on the public-address system from the control truck at the water’s edge and urges them to stay in their designated area.
‘Most of my work is attending swimmers who suffer from bangs on the head,’ he says.
Last month, a 13-year-old girl fell off her surfboard head-first into shallow water. She went to the lifeguards complaining of feeling dizzy and confused. They treated her for a spinal injury, immobilising her so that she didn’t do any further damage, putting her in a neck brace and strapping her on a spinal board. She was in shock and taken by ambulance to hospital.
11am: A bewildered-looking child of about five approaches the main lifeguard unit. His head hangs over his tiny frame – he has lost his family. As my eyes scan the packed beach, it’s impossible to distinguish one windbreaker from the next. I give him a cuddle. John gets on the Tannoy and after a tense tenminute wait for the little lad, he is reunited with his relieved parents.
‘Lost children account for a lot of our work,’ says John. It’s amazing how daunting life is when you are only 3ft tall, looking up at strangers.
11.30am: Jimmy and I move to the clifftop. I reckon there are 400 visitors now. It’s hard to keep an eye on such a large crowd.
12 noon: Ben, a seven-year-old, has inadvertently trodden on a weaver fish. I am told he will be the first of many today to do so. This small fish injects a shot of protein into the foot, and the pain is similar to a bee sting. Water as hot as you can bear it is the simple remedy. After 15 minutes the pain subsides and all Ben is left with is a red big toe and a story for his friends.
‘We recommend swimmers wear jelly shoes in the water,’ says Jimmy. ‘We get ten to 12 weaver-fish stings on a typical day. They hide under the sand and are most common around low tide. You can’t see them – you’re just unlucky if you stand on one.’
All better now: Youngster Ben soothes his foot after being stung by a weaver fish.
2pm: The next incident is a ripped toenail of a local surfer. He thinks he caught his foot on the side of his board. Lifeguards are all surfers, so they empathise. Nothing more is needed than a bandage and a rest from catching the waves. Recently the lifeguards rescued a surfer who had managed to get out past the breaking waves but then dislocated his shoulder. He was picked up by an inshore rescue boat.
5.30pm: Around high tide, when the rip current is strongest, Jamie rescues two girls in the space of ten minutes. The first was about 15 and had come off her bodyboard and started to panic. She took off her leash and so had nothing to keep her afloat. Jamie paddled over on his rescue board and took her to shore. She was fine, thankfully. Then he carried out almost the same rescue with a 17-year-old girl, also on bodyboard. Although neither girl was in immediate danger, they could have ended up on the rocks.
6pm: We head inland for a cold beer. The lifeguards often go for a surf after a shift to unwind – and I can see why they need to. Just one day has left me wired and exhausted. It’s not all about hanging out on the beach. The job demands constant vigilance, and I have nothing but admiration for those who do it.