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Cape Town - No lifeguards were on duty at Camps Bay beach when two teenagers drowned on Wednesday - and the tragedy might have been avoided if the City of Cape Town had signed a contract for lifeguards to patrol during school holidays, says the chairman of Lifesaving Western Province.
Martin Williams said the city’s director of sport, recreation and amenities, Gert Bam, had failed to renew a contract that would have made sure lifeguards were on the scene to rescue the 16-year-old boys who were visiting Cape Town with their school from North West.
“Guards are not critical at this stage,” Bam told CapeTalk just hours before the two boys drowned on Wednesday. According to CapeTalk, he added that “because of the weather at this time of year it’s not financially prudent to have lifeguards on duty during the week”.
For the past six years, an agreement between the City of Cape Town and Lifesaving Western Province has provided a stipend for professional lifeguards to cover popular beaches during school holidays.
Without lifeguards on the beach, it was up to a heroic bystander to rescue a 15-year-old pupil on Wednesday.
The agreement terminated in April and, due to legal delays, the city has not yet re-signed it.
“Had the contract been ready and signed, we would have had professional lifeguards on all beaches during this holiday,” Williams said.
Bam acknowledged to the Cape Argus on Thursday that there had been a delay in signing the contract.
“The agreement for the 2013/14 season has not yet been signed as we are receiving legal opinions in order to ensure that the city and Lifesaving Western Province are not exposed to legal risk,” he said. “We are working hard to have this legal deadlock resolved before the onset of the summer holidays.”
Bam does not have plans to ensure that lifeguards are immediately stationed at beaches for the remainder of the holiday. “Because lifesaving is voluntary, it is expected that the life-saving clubs would provide voluntary services as they normally do.”
However, Williams said the voluntary period for lifesaving clubs began in November. The agreement with the city previously allowed professional, paid lifeguards to operate outside the voluntary time, such as during the September holidays.
“It’s devastating to us that this terrible accident happened,” Williams said. “This whole thing would have been avoidable had our guards been there.”
Williams said that even in winter, Camps Bay beach was often used by foreigners and inland visitors who were unfamiliar with the ocean and were not put off by cold weather.
The boys, aged 16, were from the North West and were poor swimmers. They entered the water in an attempt to rescue the 15-year-old, who was struggling against a rip current.
The 15-year-old was rescued by a bystander, while the two older boys were caught in the current and disappeared in the surf.
The teenagers were on a school tour to Cape Town. They attended RB Dithupe Intermediate School in Zeerust.
A massive rescue effort was launched, but no sign of the two missing boys has been found. Police divers called off their search due to rough sea conditions, but shore patrols are continuing.
The school tour group returned to Camps Bay beach for a memorial service before leaving for North West on Thursday afternoon.
About 60 children and teachers comforted each other on the beach.
Craig Lambinon of the NSRI addressed them, as well as Faith Sijula from the education department, Captain Delicia Isaacs from the Camps Bay police station, and Warrant Officer Sutton, who heads the police dive unit.
They sang the favourite songs of their drowned friends and tossed flowers into the waves before beginning the bus trip home.
The rescuer, on holiday from Johannesburg, jumped into the water with a surfboard when he heard the commotion on the shoreline.
“I just knew that I had to keep calm,” he said. “The boy was very weak and couldn’t hold on to the surfboard or to me, so I ended up carrying him.”
The 15-year-old was shivering but could still speak.
“The current was very strong. He did very well to keep his head above water for as long as he did,” said the man.
“When I went into the sea I was afraid I would be coming back with a corpse.”
The bystander wanted the parents of the drowned boys to know that nothing more could have been done to save them.
“Those children are heroes,” he said. “It was instinctive for them to jump in to save somebody, it was the ultimate sacrifice really.”
The bystander was the only person to follow the boys into the “wild” and “aggressive” surf.
“I was angry about that, to be honest,” he said. “There was a crowd of people and all of them stood and watched from the sidelines when there were three kids in the water desperate for help.”
The bystander spoke to the boy he rescued in hospital. “He didn’t remember the event, which shows the level of trauma he was under, but he did remember my voice. That was touching.”
The RB Dithupe school board has instructed its teachers not to speak to the media, and no names have been released, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Andre Traut.
What to do when someone is trapped in a rip current:
Rip currents have claimed four lives in seven emergencies nationwide this week, the NSRI’s Andrew Ingram said.
Rip currents are misunderstood, tricky to spot and almost impossible to escape. They are rivers of water washing out to sea - sometimes gently, and sometimes at speeds of up to 2m/second.
“They can be a hugely powerful river that’s absolutely impossible to swim against,” Ingram said.
Recognising a rip is tough, but there are some telltale signs. A differently coloured zone of water, a break in wave patterns or debris moving out to sea all suggest a strong current.
If you are caught in a rip current, step one is to stay calm. “Panic will kill you, not the rip current,” Ingram said. If you are a strong swimmer, head left or right of the current - don’t try to swim against it.
If you’re not confident in the water, concentrate on floating and let the current take you out. It’ll soon slack, and then you can make your way back to shore or wait for lifesavers to reach you.
If you see someone in a rip current, don’t go into the water to help them. Instead, phone 10177 for help.
For more information visit www.nsri.org.za
Cadet News Agency