Being a lifeguard is not just about saving people from downing
Cape Town - The festive season is here and beaches are set to be buzzing against the backdrop of good weather.
While people will be soaking up the sun and frolicking in the sea, lifeguards will be working hard to ensure everyone is safe.
The lifeguards always start the day with a morning briefing and ensure they are neat and wear their correct uniform. Then, they are assigned duties which get rotated throughout the day.
From there, they check through all their equipment, make sure everything is functional, prep their all-terrain vehicle and ensure their inshore rescue craft such as the jetski is checked and the engine is running.
They also lay out their rescue equipment on the beach in a staging area easily accessible and with easy access to the water so that during an emergency they can grab their equipment and launch into the surf without wasting any time.
Lifeguard operations manager of the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) Stewart Seini said New Year’s Day was always the busiest. Lifeguards have to be on extra alert from 4pm onwards as this is usually the time people want to take that last dip before heading home. He said most rescues and drownings happened then.
“Lifeguards scout out all the hazards on their particular beach, including the locations of all the rip currents. A safe swimming area is then identified and marked off with our flags. This lets the public know where the safe swimming area starts and ends,” said Seini.
He said lifeguards spent much time educating beachgoers and the public on the dangers on their beach. They also move swimmers from unsafe to safe swimming zones.
“Unfortunately, most people aren’t aware of the dangers because they can't see them. However, the lifeguards are trained specifically to identify the dangers. Most people think the lifeguards are being a nuisance by forcing them to swim in a certain area when in reality, they are trying to keep you safe so that you have the best day possible at the beach,” said Seini.
The NSRI said rip currents were the biggest dangers. This is usually the calm part of the surf, so many people think it’s safe away from the waves. In reality, this is that part of the surf zone which is pulling out to sea.
“Usually, when people start getting pulled out by a rip current, they panic and try swimming against it. But a rip current can be faster than an Olympic swimmer. Eventually, they tire themselves out and that’s when drownings occur. When you’re stuck in a rip current, the best thing to do is to remain calm, wave for help, and then float on your back. When you’re in a rip current, you will normally notice waves are breaking either to left or right of you. That’s where you want to be, because that’s where the rip current isn’t, and the waves will assist to get you back to shore,” he said.
The best thing to do if you’re not tired is to swim to the sides where the waves are, which will get you out of the rip current. But never swim against a rip current.
Seini said there was a misconception that lifeguards only rescued people who were in trouble. However, their main focus is to prevent rescues from occurring in the first place. Ninety percent of lifeguards’ recorded statistics involve prevention, 9% rescue and 1% providing emergency medical care.
False Bay Surf Lifesaving Club chairman Kishan Kalan said their lifeguards started duty at 10am, so they needed to be at the clubhouse at 9:45am for a pre-briefing from the squad leader.
“The squad leader designates roles and duties for the day, based on the squad members’ strengths and weaknesses. Squad sizes have been cut to a maximum of eight members due to Covid protocols. At 10am, we survey the ocean conditions, and set up a designated swimming area, marked by two red and yellow flags,” he said.
At 11am, they do physical training, a fun-filled fitness session aimed at gaining experience and speed on the beach, and strength in the water.
Here, they often do mock rescues to sharpen rescue skills.
“We’ll always have somebody sitting on the duty tower on rotation, watching over the water, making sure swimmers are okay. They are the first point of call and can sound an alarm for rescue swimmers to attend to patients in the water. There will also always be a minimum of four lifeguards in the clubhouse at a time, always ready to perform a rescue. We also send two-man patrols with full rescue equipment and radios on patrol roughly every hour,” said Kalan.
One lifeguard may play many roles throughout the day, as long as all their bases are covered and they stick to their lifesaving protocols. They pack up their equipment and lower the flags at 6pm.
They remind people to always swim in designated areas. Kalan said people swimming drunk increased during the December holidays. On Sunrise Beach, when it is windy, they tell kiteboarders not to board in the safe swimming area as they pose a danger to bathers.
“We have rescued a fellow lifeguard from a shark attack which occurred during an Inflatable Rescue Boat training session. Often, when the river mouth close to the corner flows heavily, we are called to rescue people who have jumped in and cannot swim,” he said.
Kalan said rescuers have witnessed some gruesome scenes when kiteboarders crashed at speed. A typical rescue involves a child washed out to sea in a rip current. He said they often rescued these children.
“We are proud to have a drown-free Sunrise Beach for more than 10 years during the times we are on duty. We average more than 10 major help outs per summer season. Rescuers are almost always approached as a team, so there is also a large focus on teamwork-based activities. Training load is split between beach work (speed and agility on the sand), ocean work (swimming, mastering the rescue craft, wave-riding) and pool swimming fitness,” he said.
The City’s Recreation and Parks Department recorded 16 drownings in Cape Town from September to March. During the previous season, there were 11 drownings compared to the season before, when 19 people lost their lives.