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Always ready to rescue: Off-duty lifeguards

When you become a lifeguard, you’re trained to always be on the look-out for someone in distress – whether you’re on duty or not. 

Lifeguards patrol Boscombe Beach

RNLI/Nathan Williams

‘We were in a restaurant and there was only us and another family, that was it. We had just sat down to eat, and then we heard someone coughing behind us.’

Lauren Cooke has been an RNLI lifeguard in East Yorkshire for four years. While on a holiday in Crete, Lauren and her family were out for dinner when they heard a commotion nearby. 

‘We turned around and this man had his baby over his arm, so I knew the baby must have been choking. We went over to see if there was anything we could do, and the guy handed me the baby.’

A choking baby is a different matter to a choking adult or older child. Their fragile bodies mean you need to know the exact amount of force to use so you don’t cause severe damage while clearing the obstruction. And when a baby is turning blue from lack of oxygen, it’s easy to panic. But Lauren’s casualty care training meant she knew exactly what to do. 

‘I performed five slaps on his back and one chest thrust. Thankfully this dislodged the food from his windpipe and he started breathing again.’

The baby quickly regained his normal colour, much to his parent’s relief. ‘They were so grateful. The mum and dad were really upset at the time, and even my family and my mum’s friends became quite emotional about it. I’ve never done something like that before, so it was obviously a bit of an eye-opener. But I didn’t get as emotional as the rest. They’re all parents, so I think that makes a difference.’

Lauren Cooke at work on the beaches of East Yorkshire

Photo: RNLI

Lauren Cooke at work on the beaches of East Yorkshire

It was luck that Lauren was in the restaurant that night. But there was no luck in the knowledge she had, nor the cool head she kept during what must have been a frightening situation.

‘We’re trained to be calm during an incident. If we panic then the parents are going to panic as well. We do weekly training and scenario practices so that it does feel like an actual incident. And it’s not so much of a big thing, so you do keep quite calm. If I hadn’t been in that restaurant that night, it could have been a very different story. I‘m just so grateful that I was in the right place at the right time – it’s certainly a holiday I’ll never forget.’

This is just one of many examples of an off-duty lifeguard going above and beyond to help those in desperate need, whether it’s at the beach, on the rugby pitch, or even a small Greek taverna. 

Always watching the water

After a long day, most of us want to get away from work: to get home and relax or stop off for a drink with friends. But if you’re a lifeguard, you’re always on the look-out for trouble.

‘You’re more aware, especially if you go to a beach or a pool. You’re subconsciously watching the water and noticing things,’ says Lauren. ‘And sometimes you see someone and think: “You have no idea what you’re doing.”’

At Sennen Cove in Cornwall, the sea can become difficult for those not used to the water. Earlier this year in August, conditions were particularly challenging, and the beach had been red flagged. But the warnings are not always heeded. 

Sennen Beach near Penzance in Cornwall is an RNLI lifeguarded beach.

RNLI Lifeguard Matthew Szlitchta had just finished his patrol at the beach and was relaxing in a local café with the rest of his team when he spotted trouble. 

A boy, around 10 years old, was out on his bodyboard when he was caught in a rip current – a strong current that can quickly drag the unsuspecting out to sea. 

Seeing her son in danger, the boy’s mum went in after him. But the strong surf quickly exhausted them and they were both in need of help.

Wasting no time, Matthew ran down to the water’s edge and borrowed a surfboard. The son had managed to get out of the rip and back to shore but his mother was still struggling. Matthew quickly paddled out to the woman, and helped bring her back to safety. 

Lifeguards are trained to be experts on the local conditions and unseen hazards of the water. But what if an incident happens away from the coast?

Team work: On and off the pitch

‘All I remember is waking up on the floor surround by a few mates, including Tom, Will, Jackson and George, telling me to stay still and that the ambulance was on its way.’

Ben Donnithorne was playing in a match at St Just Rugby Club when the incident happened. A violent clash of heads with a team mate had knocked Ben unconscious, causing a seizure. Luckily for Ben, several of his team mates were off-duty lifeguards.

Ben’s rugby playing helpers on duty as lifeguards

Photo: RNLI

Ben’s rugby playing helpers on duty as lifeguards

Jackson Edwards, Tom McRitchie and George Hudson were all off-duty lifeguards at Perranporth, and Will McRitchie had volunteered the year before. They all quickly responded to the incident.

Tom got down on the floor with Ben, supporting his head until the ambulance arrived. He says: ‘We took control of the scene and did a primary survey and ongoing checks until paramedics got there.’

George added: ‘We’re all part of a team together at work and for rugby; the team dynamic doesn’t stop at the beach.’

The quick action taken by the off-duty lifeguards helped keep Ben stable until help could arrive, something Ben’s wife Harriet was thankful for. ‘It was terrifying to witness but the boys helped keep me calm and did an amazing job of supporting Ben. I will be eternally grateful they were there to put into practice the incredible training they have received from the RNLI.’

Ben Donnithorne recovering in hospital

Photo: RNLI

Ben Donnithorne recovering in hospital 

Pulled from a rip

At the coast, the potential dangers of the surf are always waiting – whether a lifeguard is on duty or not. In some locations, rescue boards are stored all-year round so that, if someone is in trouble, a passing off-duty lifeguard can quickly grab some equipment and perform a rescue. Last April, this helped save three lives.

Off-duty lifeguard Kevin Brader was enjoying a walk by the coast at Treyarnon Bay with family and friends when he spotted three surfers drifting out to sea – two men and a teenage girl. ‘They were on foam surfboards in a rip current on the far side of the beach,’ says Kevin. ‘All three were trying to paddle against the rip.'

Kevin Brader with one of the rescue boards used during the rescue

Photo: RNLI

Kevin Brader with one of the rescue boards used during the rescue 

Kevin soon realised they wouldn’t make it back and sprang into action. ‘I decided that they needed immediate assistance and swam to the man who was struggling against the rip,’ he recalls. ‘I told him to get onto his board and then dragged him and the board onto the sandbar.’

Kevin pointed the man back to the beach before heading out again, this time using the board from the man he had just rescued. He quickly made his way out to the teenage girl and brought her back to the sandbar.

In the meantime, Kevin’s friend, Bradley Nash, had run to grab a rescue board from an emergency rescue equipment store, placed for incidents like this. Bradley raced back to the scene and Kevin took the board: ‘I went for the remaining surfer who was furthest out. He was so tired he couldn’t paddle any more and he struggled to stay on his board.’

With all three surfers safely back on shore, Kevin was able to rejoin his family – once he had dried off!

Heart trouble

Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time and having access to the right equipment. Only on this occasion, it wasn’t a rescue board that was needed.

RNLI Senior Lifeguard Henry Irvine was heading to Teignmouth Beach for a training session when he was frantically flagged down by runners. They recognised him as one of the local beach lifeguards and asked him for help – an American tourist in his 40s had collapsed while running along the beach.

Henry cycled to the lifeguard unit and grabbed the first responder bag, before quickly making his way along the sea wall to the casualty. When he arrived, an off-duty doctor was already performing CPR. Henry took the defibrillator from the bag and used it to help get the casualty responsive. Working with the doctor, he administered oxygen and used his casualty care training to keep the man stable.

By the time the ambulance arrived, the man had already begun to recover – thanks in no small part to the efforts of Henry and the doctor. A few days later, Henry visited the tourist in hospital, where he was recovering well. 

Henry checks in with the man whose life he helped save

Photo: Henry Irvine

Henry checks in with the man whose life he helped save 

Lifesaving skills that last a lifetime

When you become a lifeguard, you learn a set of skills that stay with you: confidence, keeping calm under pressure and casualty care – to name just a few. ‘Once you learn your first aid skills and practice them weekly, you don’t forget them quickly,’ says Lauren Cooke. 

And being a lifeguard has helped Lauren in other ways. ‘My experience on the beach is how I got onto my physiotherapy course at Sheffield, so it does stand you in good stead for healthcare, nursing and paramedic courses.’

Want to become a lifeguard, or know someone who does? Find out everything you need to know about the process and you could be saving lives – on and off the beach – next summer.