What does it take to become a lifeguard?

Have you ever wondered how people become RNLI lifeguards? And what career options a summer on the sand can lead to? We chat to David, a former lifeguard, who shares his experience:

David, a former RNLI lifeguard

Photo: Gemma Alcock

Meet David, a former RNLI lifeguard

How did you become a lifeguard?

I had just finished a work placement for my degree in Business Management and Marketing when I saw the advert. I knew that I wanted to do something completely different before going back to university for my final year, and this meant I could work for a couple of months during the peak season. 

Lifeguarding was a different type of job entirely and I fell in love with it. I’ve always lived close to the beach, and surfed and swam, so it was a no-brainer. I was able to work outside, which was really nice when the weather was good. I also got to improve my fitness and swimming, and learn valuable lifesaving first aid. 

I wasn’t the strongest swimmer before I started the job, but this changed after working on my technique and training consistently.

Was there any RNLI training to help with your swimming?

When I first looked at the fitness requirements, I thought there was no way that I could do the swim test. You have to complete a 400m pool swim in under 7½ minutes, and the first 200m must be completed in under 3½ minutes. It’s actually quite easy when you’re a competent swimmer, but at first it took me 9 or 10 minutes! 

I had a few coaching sessions with the RNLI which helped to improve my swimming technique. As a surfer, I used to drag myself through the water with my upper body, so I didn’t have the best leg kicking technique. 

The RNLI put on a few training courses in their sea survival pool for free, which I went to in the evening. I also met someone there in a similar position to me and we encouraged each other to improve. 

I realised that you don’t have to have a stereotypical swimmer’s body; swimmers are all shapes and sizes. Anyone can do the job as long as they are relatively fit and able to pass the selection tests.

David the lifeguard rescues a crew member from the water in a demonstration for Poole Lifeboat Station's open day

Photo: RNLI/Poole Lifeboat Station

David takes part in a demonstration for Poole Lifeboat Station

I also completed the National Vocational Beach Lifeguard Qualification (NVBLQ) course with the RNLI. There are two different courses you can take, but that one appealed to me because you can use it internationally. A lot of the lifeguards choose to go abroad in the off-season. The week-long course gets you qualified and at the end of the training, you should be able to pass the fitness tests. 

How long were you a lifeguard for, and do you wish you had done it sooner?

Definitely, I had a whole host of different jobs before lifeguarding - working in hospitality, labouring and as an oyster wholesaler, to name a few. But if you get into lifeguarding earlier, there are lots of development opportunities. You can progress through the grades and work towards getting qualified on the rescue watercraft or all-terrain vehicles. 

I worked a peak season and two full seasons, but I wish I had got into it earlier and worked during sixth form and university.

Where did you move on to after lifeguarding?

Once I graduated, I worked my third full season and then I lived abroad for a few years. I travelled and volunteered through South America, South Africa, Asia and then worked in Australia for 2 years. The skills I had learned in lifeguarding helped me to find work while I travelled, it pushed me out of my comfort zone and gave me the motivation to set goals. I took on several different jobs, like working as a mechanic on a sheep farm in Australia and volunteering at an animal sanctuary in the jungle in Bolivia.

When I came back to the UK, I joined the RNLI’s face-to-face team for a couple of months and worked as a lifeguard for the rest of the season. The roles were similar in a lot of ways, and they both increased my confidence. I had to be comfortable talking to the public and sharing water safety advice and information.

Eventually I wanted to get back into marketing, which is what I had studied at university and enjoyed doing on my placement. After working at a digital agency, an opportunity came up in the legacy marketing team at the RNLI. I now work as a Marketing Manager, where I organise events, help people who want to leave a gift in their Will, and produce mass mailings to thank our supporters.

A group photo of the lifeguards at Sandbanks Beach

Photo: Gemma Alcock

The lifeguards at Sandbanks Beach

Do any rescues stick out in your mind?

When I worked at Sandbanks in Poole, Dorset, there was a day when we had easterly winds and a high tide. I had just started my shift and a little girl was way out of her depth and didn’t know what to do. She was clinging to the end of the rock groyne, which is covered in sharp molluscs and shells. I rescued the girl, but she had cuts and scratches and was quite distressed. It’s a calm, flat beach, but there are a lot of child rescues due to rip currents at the harbour entrance and outside of the swimming area between the red and yellow flags. 

Most of the time I was doing prevention work, sharing safety advice with the public. About 5-10% of the time was spent attending rescues. There’s only so much prevention you can do, especially when there are thousands of people on a hot day.

I’ll always remember when my colleague attended a serious incident. I was supposed to be working on the beach that day and had changed my shift. We all rallied round and met up as a team that evening to support him. There was a real sense of comradery, and my colleagues became my friends - we’re still in touch today.

What did you love most about being a lifeguard?

I’ve always loved the coast and surfing, and having those skills helped when using the rescue boards. I was probably the fittest I’ve ever been - I would cycle to the beach and do more fitness during the day than I’ve ever done. We even had our own lifeguard challenge to practice swimming, running and boarding. We’d log our times - not necessarily for competition with each other but to get competitive with ourselves and to improve. That way, we knew that if there was someone in trouble, we would be able to get to them quickly. 

David and his fellow lifeguards take part in their lifeguard challenge, running across the sand and swimming in the sea

Photo: Cesar Mateus

David and his fellow lifeguards take part in their lifeguard challenge

It was also really useful being trained in casualty care. I know lifeguards who went on to work in the emergency services because it’s so transferrable. 

Seize the opportunity

Lifeguarding and face-to-face fundraising could be a great career choice for you, or someone you know. You’ll get lots of training opportunities and transferrable skills which can lead to other exciting roles! As David shows, there are plenty of people who can kickstart their career through lifeguarding and fundraising. 

Interested in finding your next great opportunity? Take a look at our vacancies.