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‘Respect the water’: RNLI lifeguard training in Cornwall

Jonny Weeks
·5-min read

From a distance the ocean looks calm – safe, even – but a sticker peeling from a window in St Agnes lifeguard station offers a cautionary warning to all visitors: Respect the Water, it says.

The summer ahead promises to be busier than ever in Cornwall, with a boom in domestic tourism fuelled by global coronavirus restrictions. This beautiful but unforgiving stretch of coastline will see its fair share of rescues.

The RNLI is training new lifeguards in preparation. Today, a group of five are learning first aid skills and rehearsing water rescue techniques using tubes and rescue boards – they must wear PPE for close proximity drills, even in the water. The trainees range in age from 16 to 33 and include competitive swimmers, a gas engineer, a marine biologist and a former champion surfer.

  • Training with an AED (automated external defibrillator) and Israeli bandages. All photographs by Jonny Weeks.

“You need lots of different attributes to be a lifeguard,” says assessor-trainer Matt Trewhella. “Surf knowledge and skill in the water are really important, but also fitness, being good with first aid, people-management and communication.

“You need to talk to people and educate them on the dangers when they arrive at the beach. If you’re a pro-active lifeguard, you’re less likely to be a reactive lifeguard, so you won’t have to go and save everyone.”

  • Trainees Tom, Eron and Alex head down from St Agnes RNLI station to the beach carrying rescue boards.

Not all coastal dangers are visible to the naked eye. “Most of the time St Agnes beach is relatively safe, but obviously every beach has rip currents which vary day to day,” Trewhella says.

“We also get tidal cut-offs (where access to and from neighbouring beaches is severed at high tide) and there’s the old harbour wall where people can slip and hurt themselves. Weaver fish stings are another common problem here.”

  • Assessor-trainer Matt Trewhella shows the ‘return to shore’ command.

Eron Thornhill, 23, is one of those hoping to qualify for a lifeguarding position. He bursts athletically into the ocean during rescue drills and later plays the role of an unconscious patient with a spinal injury.

“I’m a gas engineer at the moment and I’m used to working in freezing cold houses with no heating, so lifeguarding is going to be completely different for me,” he says. “I’m a beach person really so I’m looking forward to the change of scenery, to being part of a team and to providing a service for the community.”

  • Eron Thornhill sprints into the water carrying a rescue board; Sophie Hellyer performs a mock rescue; Matt Trewhella shows how to handle an unconscious patient.

At nearby Perranporth beach, one of the busiest in north Cornwall, seasoned lifeguards are undergoing basic fitness tests. They must prove their ability to safely handle IRBs (inshore rescue boats) and RWCs (rescue water craft, AKA jetskis).

After donning life-vests and applying sunscreen, they start the session by propping a 165kg boat in the air for 10 seconds before winching an RWC on to a trailer. Later they launch three crafts into the ocean and speed off into the distance to perform mock rescues at a picturesque cove overlooked by jagged cliffs.

  • Qualified lifeguards at Perranporth beach preparing for a training session. During the fitness test, participants must show they have the strength to hoist, load and unload the water crafts.

Emily Trestrail, 24, has been a lifeguard here for eight years. “I always looked at lifeguards and thought ‘I want to do that, that looks like the coolest job ever’,” she says. “Why would I want to be anywhere else when I could working on the beach and in the sea?”

  • Emily Trestrail applies sunscreen before the training session.

Trestrail joined a swimming club aged five and became a volunteer lifeguard aged 16. For the past five years she has been a senior (paid) lifeguard at Porthtowan. She recalls an incident there last summer when she and her crew had to perform a mass ocean rescue which was triggered by a flash rip.

“A sandbank collapsed and we had a huge group of people sucked out of their depth,” she says. “It was bizarre because it happened so fast. Several of us got into the water to rescue them and we signalled to another guard, who dropped the flags. Some people saved themselves but we got to the rest of them.

She adds: “It was quite scary because everyone is waving for help and in that moment you’ve got to decide who you think needs to be rescued first. I’ve been quite lucky because I’ve never had a death on my shifts, but I know a lot of my lifeguard friends have.”

  • Lead lifeguard supervisor Anton Page instructs the guards before taking them on to the water for practical training.

Lead lifeguard supervisor Anton Page says there were a total of 418 water rescues across his catchment (from Portreath to Holywell Bay) in six months last season. Yet he notes that “almost 50% of people who end up in the water never intended to go in the water in the first place”.

For those caught out, Page says the best advice is to follow the RNLI’s slogan: ‘float to live’. “People’s natural instinct is to fight the current or throw their surfboard or flotation device away in order to swim back, but by doing that they’ve lost the one thing that’s keeping them afloat,” he explains.

  • Main picture: simulated rescues using IRBs and RWCs in the picturesque setting of Hanover Cove. Final picture: Emily Trestrail ‘rescues’ a manikin which weighs 40kg when dry, but considerably more when wet.

Trestrail predicts that she and her RNLI colleagues are in for a long, hectic season. In addition to water rescues, they can expect to handle a further 2,000 incidents involving first aid, lost persons, beach assists, antisocial behaviour and searches.

“We need to be compassionate because many people have been stuck in their houses in the middle of the country due to lockdown, they may not have been around the coastline recently and when they come to Cornwall they just want to switch off and have fun,” she says. “Sometimes they leave their brains at home, so we have to think for them and prevent them from doing anything dangerous.

“Knowing that you’re helping people is the best feeling,” she adds. “Saving lives really is the coolest job in the world.”