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Surf lifesaving: Creating lifesavers through sport

Saving lives is something that all our lifeguards are passionate about. For some, it’s also the basis of a sport that has prepared them physically and mentally for their role as custodians of our beaches - surf lifesaving.

Surf lifesaving at Boscombe Pier, Bournemouth

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

With events and competitions based on the beach, in the surf, and in IRBs (inshore rescue boats), skills honed in surf lifesaving can help give lifeguards the edge when faced with the unpredictable and powerful waters around our coasts. For one lifeguard, it helped him save the life of a boy facing the real dangers of the sea.

Nick Laws, Lifeguard at Portreath Beach

For those growing up close to the coast of Cornwall, sea and surf often plays a big part in their lives. For Nick Laws, it has led to winning medals all around the world. Nick is one of the UK’s top competitors in surf lifesaving.

‘Surf lifesaving is a sport that simulates saving lives,’ says Nick. ‘It’s made up of different races – swimming, board paddling, ski paddling.’

From sprinting across the beach and swimming out to sea as quickly as you can, to manoeuvring an inshore rescue boat through the surf, the skills learned through surf lifesaving can help prepare you for life as a lifeguard.

Nick Laws has been involved in surf lifesaving since he was 10 years old. Not only is he a member at his local club, he also competes for Great Britain in competitions around the world. ‘I won two golds in the European competition and a bronze at the worlds. I enjoy the fun of it, it’s an unpredictable sport. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the races.’

Surf lifesaving is spread across five different areas

Pool: Not just swimming practice, the pool aspect of surf lifesaving involves underwater obstacle courses, rescuing and carrying dummies, line throws, and Simulated Emergency Response Competitions (SERC), where competitors are assessed on their initiative, judgement and teamwork.

Ocean: Taking to the surf, for races with and without a surfboard to practise speed and fitness. Simulated rescues are used to practise responding under different conditions, whereas relays and oceanman/oceanwoman triathlons push physical limits.

Beach: As well as sprints and races across the sand, there are beach flag knockout competitions. The competitors line up facing a series of flags approximately 20m away. When the whistle blows, they have to sprint across and grab a flag. One problem - there is one less flag than there are competitors. After each round, the competitor without a flag is eliminated. The flags are planted again, with one taken away. The process repeats until there are just two competitors left, with the one to claim the final flag also claiming victory.

IRB: Races using an IRB (inshore rescue boat) focus on practising important rescue skills. Racing against other crews, each IRB must complete a specific rescue challenge. This varies from rescuing a single casualty to mass rescues, and can often involve a crew member diving into the water to pull a casualty back to the IRB and return them to shore.

Surf boat: Using an old fashioned rowboat similar to those once used by the lifeboat crews in the early years of the RNLI, crews of five race against each other out on the water.

The sport also played a big part in Nick’s decision to become a lifeguard. ‘I became a lifeguard because of surf lifesaving. It helps because you know how to use all the equipment already. You can also get your lifeguard qualification through your surf lifesaving club.’ This preparation would come in handy during a dramatic rescue that took place last summer.

Surf lifesaving to saving lives

Friday, 19 August 2016. Surf Lifesaving GB are holding an event at Portreath Beach on the northern coast of Cornwall. Peak season and the crowds are out. The beach is packed, with people in and out of the water.

‘I was taking part in the morning’s competition - England versus Wales. That was followed by a competition in the afternoon. One of the lifeguards on duty wanted to take part, so I covered for him.’

The surf lifesaving competition is fierce. Weather conditions are fiercer. A high spring tide combined with a larger than usual swell means conditions on the water are rough. With large waves on the horizon, the lifeguards make a decision - to put up the red flag and get everyone out of the water.

Lifeguard Supervisor Andy Thomas is on Portreath Beach that day. ‘The red flag is not just for members of the public. It’s about our ability too. Can we get someone if we need to? We decided that with the swell increasing and the high tides, it was best to close the beach. Everyone out of the water and raise the red flag.’

The lifeguards work quickly to get everyone out of the water. The competition is suspended, with competitors themselves wary of the intense conditions out in the surf. But two teenage boys ignore the warning signs and red flags and run into the sea. It doesn’t take long for them to get into trouble.

‘We spotted two teenagers run into the water. It all happened quickly, we’re talking seconds. They went in a bit too deep, a set of waves came in and dragged them out to sea. One of them managed to get back up the beach. The other was sucked back out.’

Nick Laws is one of the first to spot the danger. ‘I was just starting to head off home when I saw them. I already had my board in hand so was ready.’ He and Harry Llewellyn, a fellow lifeguard at Portreath, look to their supervisor. ‘Nick and Harry are both experienced in that size of surf,’ says Andy. ‘They looked to us for approval because of the red flag. I gave them the thumbs up. Go.’

Nick and Harry quickly paddle out on their rescue boards. ‘He was facing out to sea. He didn’t know the trouble he was in. The tide took us out real fast. When we got to him, he looked back to the shore and started to panic a bit.’

While Harry holds back, keeping an eye on the surf, Nick approaches the boy and manages to get him on his board. But a huge wave comes crashing in. ‘A big wave hit us and we both went under. It was like being inside a washing machine. When we came up, he said: “Am I gonna die?” I’d lost my board but had hold of him. I had to let go, let Harry have a chance to get him on his board.’

With his board gone, Nick clings onto the boy. The power of the waves tears them apart. Harry quickly moves in on his board. Nick is now feeling the full force of the water and the swim back to the beach is tough. ‘That was probably the most difficult swim back to shore I’ve ever done just because there were so many currents, big waves. They keep crashing down on your head and they will push you into the sandbanks. I had to keep coming in and coming out - you’ve got to time it right. The waves can easily catch you up again and pull you back out.’

Meanwhile, Harry tries to paddle his board and the boy back to the beach. They are close to the shore but the current keeps trying to drag them back out to sea. As the next big wave closes in, Harry makes a decision. He ditches the board and hauls the boy out of the sea.

By the time they are back on the beach, a large crowd has gathered, watching the rescue unfold. Lifeguards assess the boy before he is returned to his grateful parents.

‘The boy and his family were down on holiday,’ Nick explains. ‘He ignored the signs, went in and got caught off guard. Andy had a word with his dad. Made sure they knew what to do in future.’

Being a lifeguard

The storm that hit Portreath that day was part of a bigger storm that claimed the lives of six people in the seas around the UK and Channel Islands. Nick’s surf lifesaving experience helped with the rescue. Not just because of the fitness it provided, but also the confidence it gave him in the water.

‘A lot of surf lifesaving competitors have good water skills,’ says Andy, ‘They are good in the water. And to be selected for the GB team, you have to be a good all-round athlete.’

A large part of the role RNLI lifeguards play is preventative. Providing safety messages and alerting beachgoers to potential dangers is one of the most effective methods of keeping people safe at the coast.

The message from our lifeguards is simple. ‘Swim at a lifeguarded beach. Look out for the red and yellow and black and white flags. And if you have any questions, speak to the lifeguards.’

For more on surf lifesaving and to find a club near you, visit the official Surf Life Saving GB website.

And if you are heading down to the coast, find out how to stay safe on the beach here.

This rescue features in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.