Not Drowning But Waving

When people say “beach lifeguard” normally you would think David Hasselhoff or Pamela Anderson in exotic locations like California, Hawaii or Australia. The weather is sunny and the lifeguards are kitted out in designer sunglasses with sun tan to match. To some extent there is truth in this image, but what we don’t see is the difficult training that lifeguards have to go through to deal with the situations that you won’t see on TV, when it all goes wrong.

After several rejected applications I decided the forego the Faustian act (only joking) of trying to get a summer internship in a London bank or legal firm, and opt to do something a bit different with my summer. As a result I have applied to volunteer as a beach lifeguard on the beaches of the North East of England. For those whose only impression of this part of the country is the dreadful “Geordie Shore”, let me assure you that the beaches there are excellent, with sun and surf that in the height of summer can rival that of Newquay. (I also know an excellent cafe which does some epic crab sandwiches, by the way).

To be a beach lifeguard you are required to have an appropriate qualification. The specialised beach lifeguard qualification requires 5 days of training and a day of assessment, carried out (in my case) by the Royal Lifesaving Society. Fitness standards, knowledge of the beach environment, first aid competency and knowledge are required, as well as the skills needed to pluck people out of the water.

I did my qualification last year at the beginning of April. I had to be up every morning for a 8am start. As a history student this came to me as a shock. On my first day we were based solely in the pool and classroom at a local leisure centre. The class based stuff took in all sorts of topics. This ranged from the dull (but necessary) legal aspects of the lifeguarding role, to the more interesting stuff on the beach environment. Tides, to my surprise, are fascinating. Riptides, whereby swimmers can get pulled hundreds of metres out to sea are really scary, so it is very important to recognise where and how they may appear.

First Aid is an important component of the lifeguard’s role. It is necessary for lifeguards to be able to do the standard things such as the recovery position and basic adult CPR. In addition to this you need to know how to perform the procedure on a drowning casualty or on a baby. You might not think it, but performing chest compressions on a first aid dummy every day for 6 days is very tiring. By the end my wrists were really stiff.

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CPR is by no means the only part of first aid lifeguards need to be aware of. Knowing how to deal with cuts and bandages are important. Then there is stuff which can only crop up in a beach environment, namely first aid for jellyfish and weever-fish stings. Contrary to what Friends has suggested, it’s not a good idea to urinate on a jellyfish sting, but rather to simply apply some vinegar and cold water.

On to the swimming pool. Lifeguards have to be able to swim 400m in 7.5 minutes and 200m in 3.25. They also need to able to swim 25m underwater. On every day of the course we swam more than kilometre before 10am. This took in some drills to improve swimming technique and make it more efficient for open sea swimming. Drills included trying to swim front-crawl lengths of the pool with your hands as fists, or with your fingers stretched wide, not an easy task. On top of this we had to learn two new special lifesaving strokes, both designed to maximise leg power when your arms are otherwise occupied holding onto an unconscious casualty. For days afterwards my thigh muscles ached like hell.

Getting a casualty out of the water is hard work. When the casualty happens to be conscious the procedure is simple, but you are still required to tow them along through the water with them strapped to your torpedo buoy. For the purposes of assessment, this is 150 metres. Hard work indeed. If the casualty happens to be unconscious, better still, there’s the tricky procedure of turning them over, then getting them back to dry land, all the while, keeping their airway open.

Doing this in the pool was hard enough, but we had to then perform the same tasks in the sea. During my training last year it snowed on several days, and, you guessed it, we still had to go into the sea. Admittedly, some of the stuff on the beach was really good fun. In addition to the timed swim, there is a timed run component. When you are wearing only a wetsuit on a freezing beach near Sunderland, this is very welcome. Lifeguards also have to use arm signals to communicate with one another. Many of us got a good laugh out of this as we were waving our arms around like deranged trees.

Into the sea. This involved applying stuff we had done earlier in the pool. However this time around, it was much harder. This involved battling out beyond the breaking waves, which takes a great deal of resolve and effort. We learnt the hard way that the only way to do this is to dive under the waves (whilst freezing your head off, and getting an ice-cream headache). On some days the waves were so rough, that we had to practice our manoeuvres in the sheltered harbour. Our trainer-assessor reminded us that it would probably be a good idea to drink a bottle of coke afterwards. This is because coke contains chemicals which kill any potentially harmful micro-organisms that might have been inadvertently ingested in the harbour. Nice.

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Once we got our practice casualties out of the waves, there was the difficult task of dragging them onto the beach. It sounds easy, but pulling a fully grown man (who for the purposes of training is unconscious) is no easy task. On the sunnier days we got to try manoeuvring a surf board (a useful piece of the lifeguard’s equipment), which was really good fun. I even managed to ride a wave to the shore standing up (before then falling off and causing my fellow lifeguards- in -training to chuckle).

As a result of having to do nearly 2km in the water every day (often carrying a casualty in the process), practising timed runs, carrying heavy equipment, lifting heavy casualties out of the water and performing numerous chest compressions, I got through a heck of a lot of food in one week. This involved eating vast quantities of pasta for lunch and dinner and needing a big cooked breakfast every morning. This marks a change for someone who can comfortably get by on a bowl of muesli, a graze box, some pesto-pasta, a few VKs in Park End and a carton of chips from Ali’s kebab van when in Oxford.

After 6 days, I did my assessment. Of all 6 days the sea was thankfully at its calmest, and everything went according to plan. I came out with a national beach-lifeguard qualification. It was a lot of hard work, indeed, but I gained so much from the experience. It means I can get a very worthwhile summer job, and whilst it is something that “looks good on the old CV”, it means so much more. I had a great time meeting the other people on my course, and the banter we shared was top. It is nice to know that in Oxford if someone falls in the river after one-too-many glasses of Pimms whilst punting next term, I will know what to do. One week of the training really improved my fitness, and boosted my confidence massively, so in spite of all the difficulties, it was a wonderful experience.