WHETHER it’s the churning, choppy waters of a rip current, the venom from a weever fish sting or a rock-climbing child tumbling off and injuring himself, two Co Cork brothers are constantly on the look-out for danger before it happens.
Beach lifeguards James and John Walshe from Carrigtwohill have been patrolling Garryvoe Beach in East Cork since summer started. With a marine engineer father who passed his love of the sea onto his sons, and both of them surfing and boating since they were young, it’s no surprise the brothers gravitated towards a summer job by the sea.
Irish Water Safety summer camps on the beach, starting when they were barely on the cusp of teen-hood, were eventually followed at age 16 by a beach lifeguarding course that saw them spend 12 Monday nights after school in Douglas Swimming Pool — and then two weekends on Inchydoney Beach training in open water and learning to use the rescue board.
James, 21 — a pharmaceutical chemistry student at UCC — is in his fourth summer of lifeguarding, while 19-year-old John (he’s planning to do an emergency medical technician course in September) is in his third summer. John started out in 2018 on Derrynane Beach in Co Kerry.
“That summer was really hot. We were just constantly hectic, running up and down all day trying to keep an eye on things. It was quite a calm summer, not too many days of big waves, but with strong offshore winds quite often,” he says. The most serious incident he dealt with was three teen girls on a rubber dinghy being blown 200m out from a peripheral beach, which was cut off from where he was by rocky outcrops.
“We got out to them quite fast. They were just realising they wouldn’t be able to paddle against the wind and were starting to panic. Once they saw us, they calmed down.”
Anything can happen on the beach, says John, unexpected things. “Like somebody climbing up onto the footpath from the beach and hitting their head off a rock — or a four-year-old falling while playing.”
The potentially scary situations are always in the back of your mind, says James, who remembers a child landing on his neck while doing a wheelbarrow race on the sand. “We had to treat it as a suspected spinal injury — thankfully it was just bruising. In situations like this, when people are distressed, we have to maintain a steady head, a calm manner. There’s a lot of responsibility on our shoulders.”
Three beach lifeguards are employed at Garryvoe service. Each works 44 hours a week – on the weekday rota, two are on at any one time, while at weekends all three are on duty.
“Our job is to just watch the beach. When there’s someone in the water, one of us will always be down there, close to the water keeping an eye,” says James, who recalls a windy day during his first summer when a 13-year-old fell off a surf ski, which was promptly blown away. “I was in the water so I headed over and brought her into shore.”
The other lifeguard will be in the hut, ready to treat a cut, a bruise, or maybe somebody who has had the bad luck to be stung by a weever fish. “They’re typically in low tide, buried in the sand. They shoot venom up into the foot, which is very painful. Treatment is straightforward – submerge the foot in water as hot as the person can bear. The pain subsides in about 20 minutes,” says James.
Cork County Council manages 12 lifeguarded beaches and has 36 fulltime lifeguards, with a relief panel of 20 available for cover. The service runs June to mid-September annually, operating during weekends in June and September and fulltime during July and August.
The council’s water safety development officer Caroline Casey says the lifeguard’s first job on arrival at work is to assess the beach for safety. “There could have been a party overnight and glass, bottles, and needles lying around.”
Lifeguards also assess sea and weather conditions. “People say ‘it’s warm today — let’s go to the beach’. They forget there’s weather — and there are sea conditions. We update Facebook every morning with the activities a beach is safe for. So if there’s a red flag on Owenahincha — and big waves — it’s not suitable for families. We redirect them to a more suitable beach.”
The lifeguard’s job is to intervene if they see somebody doing something potentially harmful. “By making interventions, they won’t be doing as many rescues. It’s about defusing situations before they happen,” says Casey.
Cork County Council lifeguards had their busiest year in 2018: rescuing 33 people, reuniting 22 children with their families, providing first aid to 670, and preventing over 7,500 accidents from happening.
These stats testify to how vital the service is. Seeing a drop in numbers applying for lifeguard jobs nationally, Cork Co Council in partnership with Midleton College and Water Safety Ireland got proactive and set up the Beach Lifeguard Academy. It’s the only local authority one in Ireland and will be a feeder for jobs down the line.
The academy piloted in Midleton College and now operates in four schools, with another two wanting to get involved. The course is done in transition year, with a maximum of 12 students — they must pass a pool test (swim 400m in less than eight minutes) and do an interview before being accepted. Students learn about beach operations, first aid, and communication.
“Beach lifeguarding’s all about prevention and you have to be able to communicate to do prevention. Communication’s 80% of the job,” says Casey, explaining that students learn how to defuse situations.
“They’re taught to communicate in a proactive, influencing manner — to bring people with them to do the right thing, so they can explain that what’s being asked is for their safety and their kids’ safety. They need to be able to explain, for example, ‘last week I had to do ABC’ when asking people to move or to swim between the flags.”
The students also do water skills in the pool, followed by open water safety — bringing their skills to the sea and using rescue equipment. They must be 16 to do the external Water Safety Ireland exam and 17 to be employed. Once they successfully complete the course, they’re an internationally recognised beach lifeguard, eligible to apply for lifeguard jobs. But their training doesn’t stop here. They do ongoing continued professional development and their qualification must be revalidated every two years when they do another exam.
Casey says lifeguards possess life skills that make them much sought-after by employers: the ability to do team-work; water, first aid and communication skills; a sense of judgement.
Roger Sweeney, deputy CEO with Water Safety Ireland, urges beachgoers this summer to “let the lifeguard be there for you”. He points to 289 children found and reunited with loved ones by lifeguards last season, to 260 people rescued from drowning and to 3,000 first aid actions during the same period.
He said lifeguards are not a babysitting service for parents who think it’s OK to leave children playing beside the lifeguard hut.
With 30 children lost to drowning in the last decade, children need to be constantly, uninterruptedly supervised on the beach by adults. “Young children often go to the water and in seconds get into difficulty. It’s important people swim and stay within their depth,” says Sweeney.
He’s worried that this summer, beachgoers — trying to social distance — may be tempted to go further away from lifeguarded areas and end up in unsafe zones with hidden currents, deeper water areas or other hazards.
He urges people to swim in lifeguarded areas — all listed on watersafety.ie. And he’s calling on families to make water safety part of the conversation.
“Talk about it at breakfast, before you go to the beach — about the importance of staying within your depth, about who’s going to supervise the child, about not using inflatable toys, about wearing life-jackets if going out on a boat.”
For James and John Walshe, beach lifeguarding is about feeling they make a difference. “I’ve always loved being in and near the sea. That’s a massive upside,” says John. James agrees that being outdoors and being able to keep up his fitness are big side-benefits.
“In times when it’s quiet, you can go training — go for a swim, go for a run. You can’t do that if you’re in a desk job. I’ve friends stacking shelves while I’m out on the beach — it can’t be beaten really.”
With one of the best student jobs in the country and getting paid to be by the sea all summer long, do the boys ever get teased about the Baywatch association, the American lifeguard drama that became a global hit in the 1990s? “Garryvoe’s quite a stretch from Baywatch. We don’t have quite as much running-in-slow-motion,” laughs James, adding that many children look up to lifeguards.
“They ask us about our equipment, about what we do. And we’re always encouraging them to try to get their parents to get them involved in life-saving. I couldn’t think of anything better I could be doing with my summers.”
For beach lifeguard courses see watersafety.ie/lifeguard-training