It’s a good idea for a wild swimmer to master the necromancy of wind, tide, currents and waves; and so it was that my friend Steph the Ninja Elf and I went to Exmouth to do the RLSS Beach Lifeguard Qualification.
The first hint that this might not be as simple as running up and down in slo-mo with artfully tousled hair and a rescue tube came when Steph noticed that the run and swim times for different age-groups in our Beach Lifeguard Manual stopped at age 39.
The second came in the pool when Bongo, our 23 year old course-mate, swam 400m in around thirty-two seconds and then told us how much faster he’d been as a youth, when he would finish the swim before he’d started.
The third involved getting to grips with the rescue tubes, by which time we were too tired to even attempt to look good and too out of breath to hum the Baywatch theme-tune again. I had thought ‘porpoising’ was simply forging head-first, arms overhead through a wave – wrong! Porpoising is the Beach Lifeguard technique for entering the sea with a rescue tube and involves a five-mile run through dry sand, sprinting to knee-depth with the loop at the end of the eight-foot strap over your head and one shoulder, throwing the tube out and to one side, diving gracefully into the sea and hitting the sand, grabbing the sand so as not to be wiped out by a wave, resisting hyperventilating with cold-shock, pushing off the sand with one leg while trying to disentangle the rescue tube strap from your other leg while your neck is hyper-extended, after which you briefly appear – like a porpoise – above the waves before plunging back in and repeating the manoeuvre once or twice more because it’s ‘faster’ than swimming.
You then swim flat out to the casualty while keeping your head up supposedly so the casualty doesn’t vanish while you’re not looking, but actually because the strap is still wrapped round your neck and one leg, before you throw the tube at them without knocking them out with the metal clip, persuade them to turn around so they won’t attack you, clip the tube around them while they scream, punch you, rip out a hunk of hair, and pull you under with the strap because you’ve forgotten to slip it over your head and it’s still wrapped around one leg.
After this, you’re expected to tow the casualty – formerly your friend but whom you are now starting to dislike intensely – back to the beach while they laugh openly at your gasping attempt at swimming with ‘urgency’. You hug them supportively and act looking at them in a caring way while you carry them ashore, resisting the urge to knee them in the back and stamp on their head. Instead you deposit them gently on the beach, wrap them in blankets, and give them your last Rollo. You then trip over the strap. When you act as casualty for Bongo he attempts to asphyxiate you by grabbing your face with his huge paw, allegedly to prevent a breaking wave from occluding your airway.
Finally, if you’re still alive, you have to carry a ten-foot malibu board at speed through a howling cross-wind down a mined RNLI slipway to the sea while putting a fiver in the collection box, find the sea with eyes screwed up against the sand-storm, throw the board in and attempt a half-submerged bunny-hop alongside, followed by a second leap and a graceful kneeling landing on said board which is now supposed to be speeding purposefully in the direction of the unconscious casualty. You then execute a warp-factor, two-armed paddle to deep water, flip the board over next to the casualty while inhaling a wave, paddle sideways while coughing up seawater on the up-side-down board to try to catch the casualty who’s being swept away at 5 knots by the estuarine current while the wind and waves push you in the opposite direction, before inhaling sufficient air to turn the casualty over and give five rescue breaths, and then whipping the casualty’s hands over the board and hanging on to them with the freezing numb fingers on one hand, while grabbing the far edge of the board with the other and raising one knee to the lower edge and leaping from the water like a spawning salmon with the result that the board flips back the right way.
After this the casualty is miraculously supposed to be lying on the board in the right place to allow you to hop onto the back without sinking or pushing the nose under, and self, casualty and board are all facing the shore, ready for you to paddle self and casualty back to the beach with your face buried in the casualty’s bum while trying to resist blowing your nose on his wetsuit and having a quick nap.
Throughout the entire rescue you have of course been keeping one eye on the beach where Andy the Instructor is rapidly flapping his arms which are holding a shark-warning flag and simultaneously spelling out in your newly-learned Lifeguard Sign Language a critique of your efforts so far, the speed and direction of the current, warnings of approaching dumping waves, a reprimand for not knowing how to tie a head-bandage, a request for you to sign back three types of rip current, and a record of which bits of your kit passing dogs have just pissed on.
To our utter amazement, we both passed, although it was made quite clear that we’re too slow to get actual Beach Lifeguard jobs on beaches longer than twelve feet or with a tidal range of more than two inches. Nonetheless, a fantastic week during which we learned a huge amount. Thanks to Andy from East Devon Training whose extensive knowledge and experience, humour and tea were imbibed to largely good effect; to Steph’s German chocolate biscuits which are the secret of her twelve-pack; and to Bongo Ben for making us laugh and showing us how to be a proper Beach Lifeguard.
And very special thanks to the puppy who performed CPR by jumping on my chest and licking my face while I was unconscious on the beach.