Meet Devon’s next generation of beach lifeguards
PUBLISHED: 10:25 18 June 2019
BECKY DICKINSON goes between the red and yellow flags to watch Devon’s up and coming beach lifeguards in action
A herd of children charge towards the sea, legs and arms firing on all cylinders. The waves are cold and fierce, but they tumble in, fearless, determined, until all that's visible is an outcrop of heads bobbing above the water, distinguishable only by a mass of brightly coloured skull caps.
Some are as young as seven years old, with a strength and resilience that seems way beyond their years. And although they may not yet know it, these are some of Devon's future lifeguards in training.
The children are part of Surf Life Saving Great Britain, or SLSGB, a voluntary organisation with clubs all over that UK that trains youngsters in beach safety, lifesaving and search and rescue. There are ten clubs in Devon, with another in Plymouth currently working towards affiliation.
Besides providing a strong sense of community within coastal towns and villages, they also form a vital safety net for when the employed lifeguard cover stops. What's more, they equip children and young people with skills that extend way beyond the sea.
One of Devon's Surf Life Saving clubs is Bideford Bay, or BBSLS. Members train at the popular surfing beach of Westward Ho! for around half the year, and in a local pool during the more mercurial months.
Sonia Cox was one of the club's original founders back in 1988. She still works tirelessly, inspiring and instructing fledgling lifeguards.
She says: "The ethos has always been about fun, friends and life skills. The club supports knowledge of the joys and dangers of living by the sea, encouraging members to not only value the skills they are taught but also the environment in which they live."
The youngest SLS members start out as 'Nippers'. They follow a programme of water and lifesaving skills, developing rescue techniques alongside essential life skills such as communication, teamwork, leadership and responsibility - and all in an atmosphere of fitness and fun.
From the age of 16, young people can become fully qualified Beach Lifeguards. As well as a tough timed swim fitness test, they are also assessed in subjects such as weather, tides, currents and dynamic risk assessment, and must demonstrate the ability to make on the spot decisions and take action.
SLS Club Development Manager, Mark Turner, says: "Graduate Lifeguards have delivered drowning prevention presentations to over 1,500 children since 2016 - the ripple effect of this is immeasurable but we know that education is one of the best ways of helping to keep coastal communities safe.
"Surf Lifesaving provides a safe environment in which children and adults can enjoy the coast and develop skills and self confidence needed to increase water safety and help prevent drowning."
While safety is at the heart of SLS, it's the enjoyment factor that seems to keep the kids coming back week after week - regardless of steely skies and dancing waves.
"Above all, it's fun!" says National Safety and Operations Manager, Adey Mayhew. "Rescue boats, boards, rescue tubes, sand, sea and surf are an intoxicating mix and an amazing environment for any child to learn vital life skills."
He adds: "Seeing our young members growing in confidence in dealing with emergencies and appreciating the ocean is brilliant. By their mid teens they know how to make a rescue, or a call for help, and how to assist responders."
Yet the survival of the clubs themselves relies on the dedication of volunteers who give up huge amounts of time planning and leading activities. David Baxter is one of the coaches with Bideford Bay SLS.
He became involved when his own son joined the club in 2015 and says: "Having spent most of my life in or on the sea it seemed like a natural thing to do and to be able to learn a new skill with my son made it even more worthwhile.
"What I didn't realise was just how much I would enjoy it; I cannot imagine not being at a training session or competition, it's a big part of my life now."
However, as the club goes from strength to strength, David says there are new challenges, and that he would love to see businesses get involved, too. "The beaches in North Devon are only going to get busier. Gaining sponsorship from businesses would enable us to buy essential kit for training and competitions.
"We currently share the lifeguard station at Westward Ho! with the RNLI and have a garage in which we store equipment, so essentially we need a club house. BBSLS is vital to the community and it's very important that it continues, and more importantly, grows. It's a free resource that can give so much."
Meanwhile, out in the sea, as the children power through the waves, the sense of camaraderie, courage and sheer capability is tangible. There is a feeling that whatever these children go on to do in life, a part of them will always be a Surf Life Saver.
For some it will become a way of life, and for others, they will become the next generation to stand between those reassuring red and yellow flags. Keeping watch, keeping the rest of us safe.
Surf Life Saving GB: the history
- Surf Life Saving originated in Australia.
- It arrived in the UK in 1950s, when the first club was established in Bude, followed by another in St Agnes.
- As surfing continued to grow in popularity throughout the 1960s and '70s, further clubs began popping up at beaches throughout the South West and further ashore.
- Today there are 60 affiliated Surf Life Saving Clubs and another 12 accredited training organisations.
- Surf Life Saving Great Britain has 8,500 members and trains over 1,000 new Lifeguards each year.