Pro-surfer is RNLI lifeguard patrolling Cornish beaches this peak season
Every year RNLI lifeguards are trained to keep beachgoers safe. They come from all walks of life and when they’re not on patrol get up to some really exciting things, so what motivates them to come back year after year to keep you safe at the coast?
Pro-surfer Mike Lay first got involved with the RNLI after spending his summers on his local beach, Gwenver, after leaving school. He’s spent the last two years being paid to travel, surf and write as a global brand ambassador for Reef, but when he’s not doing that he patrols the beaches of west Cornwall as an RNLI lifeguard.
Mike, who has recently returned from a big surf competition in Mexico, says: ‘Growing up, every spare moment was spent on the beach surfing and soaking in the environment so the progression from spending leisure time there to working there was a natural one. I was hugely inspired by the lifeguards who worked there before me and their friendly interactions with me gave me the confidence to apply, those guys are now lifelong friends.’
Mike has worked as an RNLI lifeguard for around seven years, mainly in west Cornwall, but he also completed a season in Jersey. This summer he’ll be patrolling the beaches at Sennen, Porthcurno and Gwenver as a senior casual lifeguard with the charity.
He said: ‘Without lifeguarding I don’t think I would be where I am today, I basically spent five years in and around the water, becoming more and more comfortable with the sea. There’s no other job where you get to do that. In west Penwith where we are probably the most swell exposed area in the entire country, it is essential to have ocean knowledge. It is no coincidence in my opinion that the best lifeguards on exposed beaches are nearly always surfers.’
It’s a sentiment echoed by Stef Harkon who has been lifeguarding for more than 30 years and is one of the RNLI’s full-time lifeguards patrolling Sennen this season.
He says: ‘As a keen young surfer it seemed that being a lifeguard was the obvious choice of work for me as it gave me the ability to be in the environment I loved. Being a surfer gives me a good knowledge of the sea and how that relates to keeping people safe in the water is crucial. I didn't really think all these years later I'd still be able to work and enjoy it so much. Being an RNLI lifeguard has increased our potential to reach more people with our key safety messages. You probably couldn’t get a better job in the south west in the summer.’
RNLI lifeguards patrol more than 240 beaches in the UK and the Channel Islands. They are qualified in lifesaving and casualty care, highly trained and strong and fit. They have to be able to swim 200m in under 3½ minutes and run 200m on sand in under 40 seconds.
Stef added: ‘Hundreds of people have been rescued and helped on our beaches for many years and I've witnessed some truly heroic acts by my colleagues over those years, lots of times passing without any attention or praise from the wider general public. Our job is to keep people safe and save lives at sea and that is what we do year after year.’
Recruiting new lifeguards in west Cornwall sometimes has its challenges, but a high calibre of experienced lifeguards return year after year to help educate beachgoers and assist those who find themselves in trouble in the water.
Mike has been a full time professional surfer for 18 months and prior to that was semi-professional for three years, complementing his income from surfing with seasonal lifeguard work.
He added: ‘I’m lucky to continue to be a qualified RNLI lifeguard during this time, my rescue and first aid experience comes into play fairly often and always affords me peace of mind that I can be useful in incidents in and out of the water. On top of that I do just love lifeguarding, to work for a few weeks every summer is a privilege and I think I’ll probably return to full time seasonal employment at some point in the future.’
Most RNLI lifeguards are paid by the local authority to maintain patrols on our busiest beaches, but we also have volunteer lifeguards.
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Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 230 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and has more than 150 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824 its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 139,000 lives.
A charity registered in England and Wales (209603) and Scotland (SCO37736). Charity number CHY 2678 in the Republic of Ireland.
Key facts about the RNLI
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is the charity that saves lives at sea. Our volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service in the United Kingdom and Ireland from 238 lifeboat stations, including four along the River Thames and inland lifeboat stations at Loch Ness, Lough Derg, Enniskillen and Lough Ree. Additionally the RNLI has more than 1,000 lifeguards on over 240 beaches around the UK and operates a specialist flood rescue team, which can respond anywhere across the UK and Ireland when inland flooding puts lives at risk.
The RNLI relies on public donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. As a charity it is separate from, but works alongside, government-controlled and funded coastguard services. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824 our lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved at least 140,000 lives. Volunteers make up 95% of the charity, including 4,600 volunteer lifeboat crew members and 3,000 volunteer shore crew. Additionally, tens of thousands of other dedicated volunteers raise funds and awareness, give safety advice, and help in our museums, shops and offices.
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The RNLI is a charity registered in England and Wales (209603) and Scotland (SC037736). Charity number 20003326 in the Republic of Ireland