We are living in strange times. The covid-19 pandemic has taken thousands of lives in Britain and brought dislocation to our economy and a lockdown of the conduct of our personal lives which would have been unthinkable just six months ago. Daily we have learned of the loss of life of loved ones, and of the titanic struggles being fought in our hospitals, care homes and social services to save the stricken and to protect the vulnerable as the country has responded to the crisis. People who fell ill were asked to self-isolate at home and only ask for help if their condition became serious. Those of us fortunate to remain well were also confined to home with a strict regimen which permitted one daily walk of an hour around the neighbourhood, and a single weekly food shop if possible.
The government eased these strictures on the use of public spaces as the first month elapsed. Longer times were allowed outside the home and a licence to travel further for exercise was greatly welcomed, particularly here in St. Ives where days upon days of unbroken sunshine enabled many families to bring their children to the beach. Sea bathing and surfing were approved as acceptable forms of exercise and Porthmeor offered plentiful space for social distancing.
One element of the beach experience was missing, and the surf forecast for the forthcoming Whitsun weekend sounded the alarm. Strong onshore winds and large waves were expected at the beach, but there were no lifeguards. The RNLI had curtailed it’s recruitment and furloughed it’s permanent staff when the pandemic struck. It was unprepared for beach lifeguarding, and advising people through social media that they should not go into the sea.
At Porthmeor, The St. Ives Surf Lifesaving Club, St. Ives Surf School, Saints Boardriders, the Porthmeor Beach management and the unemployed lifeguards who were using the beach daily felt they could jointly offer a response to this absence by devising a safety cover which would foresee and prevent a dangerous event from happening and also have the capability of providing a first aid service for minor injuries.
It was up-and-running within a day – a low-key service of ‘safety officers’ advising those going into the sea on the conditions and the safest area for their activity. The local community was immediately supportive, to the extent that one resident opened a fundraiser, several local restaurants have provided lunch for the volunteers and some of our junior lifesavers have joined the volunteers and gained valuable experience while their schools are closed.
Over the three weeks in which the service operated there were few incidents and no real alarms. Then a sting in the tail gave a thunderous emphasis on why the service was needed. In the final hour of the last day of volunteer cover, a group of four bathers was swept into a rip which took them into a boiling sea of short head-high breaking waves. They were disorientated and in trouble. There was a high speed dash down the beach by three of the volunteers on duty while the fourth made radio contact with the coastguard service to alert them to the incident. The lead lifeguard smashed through the waves with a rescue board and reached three casualties, who were able to cling to the craft and draw breath. As a second rescuer then brought them back toward the beach, the leader again plunged into the waves to find the fourth swimmer who was now struggling to stay afloat. He succeeded in reaching the swimmer and bringing her back to the shore where her companions were now safely recovering aided by the other two rescuers. Disaster was averted without the need for the lifeboat and other emergencies services.
As we welcome the RNLI back to the beach we can reflect on the lessons learned from this endeavour. The preventative aspect of beach lifeguarding has been the most crucial element of the exercise. Keeping an alert watch, maintaining fitness and preparedness to act, along with those useful interactions at the waters’ edge with surfers and bathers have helped the days pass quietly. Coastal communities elsewhere in the country have sadly seen the loss of life during this time. Some other beaches also moved to set up ad hoc lifeguarding teams and no lives have been lost where these have operated.
In closing, I offer a few pictures of some of our volunteers and a list of all who stepped up to serve. This is a time of international tragedy when too many people are grieving for lost family and friends. It’s also a time that has seen magnificent efforts from NHS staff, carers, shop workers, police and emergency services to prop up civil society as we struggle to understand how the world will look tomorrow. We are learning that we depend on those who stand up and offer to do something. In a small way our volunteers found a way to help Porthmeor be a relief valve for the emotions and energy which lockdown contained. The community instantly showed whole-hearted support for them. Thank you all!
Here is a list of all those who volunteered their time and expertise over those three weeks:
Liam Dennis Green