Lifeguards: Keeping you safe on the beach

When you think of the beach, you’re probably imagining sun, sea, sand and good times. But for our lifeguards, there’s just one thing on their minds – safety.

Lifeguards patrolling the beach by a red and yellow flag

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The summer of 2018 was one of the hottest on record. The sweltering heatwave was inescapable, and millions of people flocked to the beach to enjoy the sunshine, cool down in the sea, or relax on the sand. 

But whether the weather is good or bad, the beaches quiet or busy, the role of lifeguards remains the same – to keep people safe. 

Getting ready for the beach

Our lifeguard season starts in January, where the RNLI’s team of lifeguards and supervisors begins to put their careful planning and tough training into action. Becky Fox is lead lifeguard supervisor for the South Hams area, a busy patch of beaches along the coast of Devon in south-west England. 

‘My job is to oversee the running of the lifeguard service and run the support centre. There’s around 40 lifeguards, including volunteers and full-time lifeguards,’ says Becky. ‘I’m responsible for ensuring they are all trained up for the season.’

Lifeguards monitoring a beach

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Each year, lifeguards old and new take part in a 2-week induction. For the experienced lifeguards, it’s a chance to refamiliarise themselves with what they’ve learned before. For newcomers, it’s a chance to get prepared for the season ahead.

Becky describes: ‘They take part in first aid competency training, as well as qualifying for the inshore rescue boats (IRBs) and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). They will also have all the fitness tests and take a health and safety assessment too.’

But it’s not just the lifeguards being prepared. The beach lifeguard huts, safety messaging and kit bags are all being prepared for the new season. ‘We’re making sure that there’s enough lifeguard equipment ready, including enough spares. We also know we’re going to get through a lot of first aid kit equipment and sunscreen, so we’re making sure we have enough supplies ahead of time,’ says Becky. 

How you can keep safe

With the lifeguards getting ready for the new season, what can you do to ensure you and your loved ones have a safe trip to the seaside? 

‘Our number one piece of advice is to always swim between the red and yellow flags,’ says Becky.

There’s no quicker way to spot a lifeguarded beach than by looking out for the red and yellow flags. Put up at the start of each day, they tell you that a lifeguard is on the beach and let you know the safest place to go in the water. Lifeguards monitor conditions carefully through a combination of local knowledge, patrolling and their training.

A red and yellow flag on Sandbanks Beach

Photo: RNLI/Laura Wiltshire

‘We’ve got a mix of beaches in South Hams. Some that are more family-orientated,’ says Becky. ‘And there are lots of surf beaches with rip currents and different watersports going on. So the lifeguards are working to manage the rips, kitesurfers, windsurfers, surfers and families!

The sea can be dangerously unpredictable. And even on a calm, sunny day, conditions can change quickly. Rip currents are one of the most common causes of problems for beachgoers. It doesn’t take long for someone unsuspecting to be dragged so far out to sea that they can’t swim back. But rip currents are hard to spot, especially at a beach you’re not familiar with.

‘We always advise you go up and speak to a lifeguard when you get to the beach,’ says Becky. ‘They can tell you about any hazards and provide good advice for conditions of the day. It might be something like offshore winds, so you shouldn’t use inflatables. Go straight up to a lifeguard if you have any concerns. You’ll get the most out of your day and stay safe.’

Caught in a rip

Lifeguards around the coast are all too familiar with the dangers that rip currents possess. In 2015, lifeguarding brothers Isaac and Theo Stopard had to spring into action to rescue five people caught in a rip off Bantham Beach in Devon.

Lifeguard brothers from Bantham Beach

Photo: Alex Williams

‘There was a strong glare from the sun, but I noticed a number of bodyboarders further out to sea drifting towards the rip,’ says Theo. ‘I started walking towards the rip to advise them to swim back across. But by the time I was halfway there, they were already in trouble.’

Read more about the rescue and the family dragged out to sea

What you can do to help yourself?

Being safe at the beach isn’t all about water safety. The sun can be just as dangerous. Lifeguards are on-hand for first aid, but you can take steps to ensure you won’t need their help.

Put on plenty of sunscreen: Make sure you bring plenty of sunscreen to the beach. If you’re spending the whole day on the sand, you’ll also want to top up your protection regularly throughout the day.

Find some shade: Your body will need a break from the sun. Covering yourself up with a hat and clothes will help protect your skin. But to really cool off, find a spot in some shade. Or bust out a windbreaker or an old tent to create your own sanctuary from the sun.

Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Keeping hydrated will help prevent a number of issues that can turn your fun in the sun into a damp squib.

Lifeguards watching over the beach

Photo: Simon Gator

You might not want to think about safety when you’re enjoying yourself at the seaside. But by doing a few simple things like choosing a lifeguarded beach, being aware of potential dangers, and keeping yourself protected, you can focus on having fun.

Find your nearest lifeguarded beach – you can search by town, post code, or simply navigate the map to the bit of the coast you’re visiting. And for more advice, visit our beach safety pages.