Water safety – Life’s a beach

Lifeguarding is so much more than slapping on sunscreen, strapping a buoy to your back and strutting across the golden sands with eyes of admiration following your every move.

The industry of professional lifeguarding is paramount to the marketability of coastal towns. And Plettenberg Bay has a well-earned reputation where visitors can enjoy the pleasures of a beach lifestyle in safety, thanks to the supervision of skilled, experienced and professional lifeguards.

On average, 59 lifeguards supervise as many as 30 000 beach visitors along Plett’s 20 kilometres of  beach during the three months of  ‘season’ in December.  It’s a system of loyalty and trust. Loyalty to those who visit our beaches, and trust among the lifeguards themselves. No occupation seems to embody Plett Summer like that of a well-tanned, able-bodied, vigilant and attentive lifeguard.  Clad in red and yellow, sunglasses and rescue boards nearby, the Plett lifeguards are ready to rush into the ocean, putting their lives on the line at a moment’s notice.  It is perhaps the most important job in Plett during the summer months.  With our beautiful year-round weather and water-centric lifestyle, lifeguards are an essential part of Plett. We see them on our beaches, but many of us have little knowledge about what lifeguards actually do to keep us safe. 

More than watching the water 
While it may appear as if lifeguards are merely staring out across the big blue, they are in fact monitoring conditions, analysing each swimmer’s capability, and ensuring the safety of everyone near the water. Their goal is to prevent injury, attend to other urgent needs and protect each swimmer.  Lifeguards are not only excellent swimmers, they are also trained in emergency rescue procedures, including first aid. When a swimmer is fatigued, cramping, injured or at risk for other reasons, a lifeguard dives into the water with a buoy and helps return the swimmer to safety and assures the victim is looked after and follow-up procedures are observed. 

What does it take to be an effective link in the chain that is professional lifeguarding? The obvious traits would be physical strength and proficiency in the water. In the Bitou area, trainers put an emphasis on the concept of Lifeguarding rather than ‘Lifesaving’.  This means that the most important function is to train up and make aware the concept of ‘Preventative Beach Safety’. Well-established facilities and equipment, knowledge of aquatic environmental conditions, knowing the beach goers and teamwork are also extremely important characteristics.

Lifeguarding in Plett 
Choosing lifeguarding as a career choice, whether for school holiday work only or as a permanent profession, can be risky business.  The ensuing debate over the lifeguards’ seasonality of employment has taken centre stage in coastal towns throughout SA, and where the main attraction is a pristine and safe beach, it’s a topic that needs urgent attention. We are not talking sun-tanned slackers lounging in beach towers as the surf rolls in. We are talking about public-essential service employees, who under the Bitou Municipality structure, are considered equal to others within our community services department. 

The Bitou Mayoral Lifeguard programme has a job creation element for students from local schools.  Candidates who participate are provided with transport before school, coaching fees and transport are paid for by the Bitou Municipality.  Graduates have indicated the traning was difficult, as it can  take up to two  years to complete  the course and  their initial  investment is their dedication and the end result is  employment. 

Veteran lifeguard Chas Fraser together with the Bitou Municipality, operate the Plett Lifeguard Programme. Chas has dedicated a substantial amount of time to the programme. The job is physically challenging and requires good aquatic skills as well as essential traits such as reliability, team work, openness and most importantly the ability to communicate effectively. Success in the programme secures an opportunity of employment beyond high school for these lifeguards. With the skills they acquire, plenty of self-discipline and the sense of self-worth and purpose associated with the red and yellow uniform, these candidates are well positioned to become effective and sought-after employees in whatever their chosen profession. In general, if they do a good job, are reliable and growing, lifeguarding helps by giving them job experience that can translate into a great recommendation for any endeavour they choose. 

“There was a kid I always think back to, from the very beginning. Single parent (father with limited resources) who, though not athletic, and did not have enough aquatic skills joined the program, got up every morning and JOGGED 20kms to the pool AND was always on time at 6am. He then went to school as most do right after. He completed the course became trustworthy, dependable and received a scholarship,” answers Chas when asked if anyone in his programme ever stood out. 

Chas is one of those dedicated individuals who some might say is an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. Others might say he is an extraordinary person doing what he sees as ordinary things. Chas and the other veteran lifeguards are extraordinary people for whom community is a way of life. They train, uplift and give of their time and expertise quickly and efficiently, always ready, willing and able. 

Of course, no number of lifeguards on our beaches will ever be a substitute for a swimmer’s respect for the ocean and the power it yields. But with competent lifeguards on our shores this season, rest assured, our team in red and yellow will try their best to keep you and your family safe.

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