Baywatch meets Shameless: a day with the lifeguards on one British beach

It is an idyllic day at the British seaside – albeit with slight anarchic undertones. We’re on Viking Bay beach in Broadstairs, Kent: a satisfying crescent of dirty blond sand sandwiched between steep chalk cliffs and a horseshoe of water. It’s a Wednesday morning in early August and the temperature is already in the early 20s with just a soft breath of wind. On the sand, for a bargainous £1 per child, kids giggle as Mr Punch chases after the crocodile with a stick. Older folk sit outside pastel-hued beach huts (maybe a little smugly?) sipping tea. Groups of teenage boys studiously ignore groups of teenage girls, and vice versa. A faint aroma of deep-fried sea creatures and not-enough SPF30 fills the air.

And people dig holes: big, deep, ambitious trenches in the sand. Not all, but most are the proud work of fathers and their sons, and at any point there may be half a dozen major construction projects around Viking Bay, like a treasure map has been drawn with an overabundance of X-marks-the-spots, or there’s been a rash of lost car keys. The tools, typically, are the beach staples of the bucket and spade, but the real pros bring a garden shovel from home. One of these, Matt from Chingford in east London, has by 10am excavated down to a metre, just under the height of his 10-year-old son. Why’s he doing it? “My boy likes sitting in the hole,” he says, “he finds it calming.” Matt’s so engrossed with the task he doesn’t notice a gull has made off with half his breakfast scone.

Broadstairs, Kent. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

At the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) lifeguard station – a raised glass box in the middle of the sand on Viking Bay – Sam Anderson, a tall, composed 21-year-old in his fourth summer as a lifeguard, surveys the scene through the “binos”. The craze for digging big holes is an unexpected one, he admits. “This year there’s been so many more people digging holes!” he says. “I was working up in Botany Bay recently on a relatively quiet day and there were maybe 200 people on the beach and 10 giant holes. There’s probably double the amount this year than I’ve seen before. I think people have seen other people doing it so they’ve decided to do it as well.”

Bizarre as it might seem, there is a risk attached to the activity: it’s called sand collapse. Last July, on Fistral beach in Newquay, Cornwall, an 18-year-old man was buried after a 2m hole he had dug tumbled down on him. A metre cubed of sand weighs about a ton, and he almost suffocated. It took a collective effort of RNLI lifeguards, the coastguard, fire, police and ambulance teams more than an hour to extricate him. The fire service described him as a “very, very, lucky boy”.

After a few minutes surveying the scene in Broadstairs, Anderson hangs up the binoculars and decides there’s no cause to intervene just yet. But he doesn’t rule it out. “We speak to them, they don’t always listen,” he says. “You have to get to them quickly because if they’ve committed too much they’re not really going listen to you and we can’t make them. So you’ve got to notice the holes being dug along with everything else going on at the beach.”

The RNLI promotes being a lifeguard, which has been part of its service since 2001, as “Britain’s best summer job”. And this may be the case: your office is the beach; the hours (10am-6pm) are sociable; the pay (on average about £13.50 an hour) is decent; the uniform (red board shorts and a canary-yellow polo shirt) is kind of cool. There is also the pretty weighty satisfaction of saving lives. RNLI lifeguards oversee 245 beaches around the UK and last year their guards were involved in more than 3,000 rescues and directly involved in saving 112 people. In the 20 years since the RNLI became involved in patrolling the beaches in Britain and Northern Ireland, the number of prevented fatalities is 1,681.

Lifeguard Sam Anderson shows bathers where it is safer to swim.
Lifeguard Sam Anderson shows bathers where it is safer to swim. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

But while there is much about the job that conforms to the Baywatch stereotype, you do not have to spend very long around a team of lifeguards to realise that David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson (or The Rock and Zac Efron in the 2017 reboot) only told the half of it. The remit of the RNLI lifeguards is gently to convince members of the public not to do idiotic or life-endangering things (my words, not theirs). This, in the British summertime, can be quite the challenge. The beach, for many of us, is a place to relax and blow off steam. With weather as traditionally unreliable as ours, you never know when the next hot day might come along. Normal rules don’t apply.

For a lifeguard like Anderson in Broadstairs, a holiday destination so beloved of Charles Dickens that he came here for 22 consecutive summers, this might mean trying to persuade local teens not to “tombstone”: a rite of passage where they jump off the pier into the sea, usually feet first but sometimes with acrobatics thrown in. Or giving first aid to someone with a cut leg, a dislocated knee or who has gone into cardiac arrest. Or breaking up fights, which are commonplace on the busiest beaches on the busiest days. Or counselling someone who has come to the beach with the intention of ending their life. Or, in extreme though less serious circumstances, guards might have to ask a couple to refrain from what was called, back in the day, heavy petting. So it’s Baywatch, but with a bit of Shameless thrown in.

The challenges for lifeguards are perhaps greater in 2022 than ever before. The number of people heading to British beaches has been on a steady upward curve for a couple of decades and Covid has exacerbated the trend: in 2011, the RNLI recorded 9.8 million visitors to the 170 UK beaches they patrolled; 10 years later, it was more than 20 million people. We also appear to be finding ourselves in more sticky situations than ever before: in 2021, RNLI lifeboat crews and lifeguards saved 408 people from drowning in the UK, which was an increase of 59 on 2020, and 150 more than 2017. This summer – especially in Kent and the south of England where the Met Office has issued its first-ever red warning for exceptional heat – there is no such thing as a quiet day down the beach any more.

If you’re starting to think that being an RNLI lifeguard – one of the “red and yellows” – might be for you, you may want to consider the required skill set. Mainly, obviously, you need to be a beast in the water: able to complete a 400m pool swim in less than 7½ minutes; also, a 25m pool swim underwater and a 25m surface swim consecutively in under 50 seconds. You need to be a decent runner, too, capable of covering 200m on the sand in less than 40 seconds. Once you qualify, there are regular tests to make sure your levels don’t dip – so lay off the ice-cream, all right? And you need to be of school-leaving age, so at least 16.

Most of the lifeguards I meet in Broadstairs and nearby Margate are in their late teens or early 20s, making a small dent in their student debt by working the summer. Many have been competitive swimmers in their youth, and the ones who haven’t have had to train hard to make the grade. Lola Sutton, 16, one of the rookies, is a national-level butterfly swimmer and wants to make it to the Olympics in the 800m. Harvey Dent, 17, races cars in a junior series. But there are slightly older guards, too: George Cook is 26 and in his ninth season; he teaches year 4 at a local primary school, but comes back to lifeguarding in the summer holidays.

Others are lucky enough to turn the lifestyle into a livelihood. James Ring is the 28-year-old supervisor for the Ramsgate region – a run of 13 beaches from Sheerness in north Kent down past Margate and Broadstairs to Ramsgate – and works 10 months a year for the RNLI. Then, over Christmas and new year, he’ll take his “holiday”, usually to somewhere in the southern hemisphere like Indonesia. “Yeah, a beach at work and beach on holiday,” says Ring, who is what you picture when you think of a lifeguard: tanned, muscular, sunglasses, easygoing. “I just absolutely love coming down to the beach: it’s good for your mental health, good for your physical health. And we’re doing a good thing, as far as I can see. Eventually I’m sure I’ll have to hang up the Speedos, but I’ll be doing this as long as I possibly can.”

Lola Sutton, who is a national-level butterfly swimmer, with Harvey Dent, keeping an eye on bathers through the ‘binos’.
Lola Sutton, who is a national-level butterfly swimmer, with Harvey Dent, keeping an eye on bathers through the ‘binos’. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

As Ring paints it, lifeguarding does sound ridiculously cushy: at one point, he announces with a smile that he has to disappear, because Margate beach has taken delivery of a new jetski and he needs to make sure it “works properly”. But every beach has different challenges. The Cornish coast is known for its rip currents and it’s here that some of the most dramatic rescues happen. Last month on Fistral beach again, nine bodyboarders and one swimmer were dragged 75m out to sea by a rip and had to be rescued by two lifeguards, going back and forth.

In his patch, Ring notes, the main issue is the sheer volume of people. Margate is on a direct, high-speed train line from London and more than 15,000 can pour on to the beach there; at Broadstairs, the other of what Ring calls the “carnage beaches”, the often-tested capacity is about 5,000. Ramsgate, meanwhile, boasts the biggest Wetherspoon’s in the UK. While the water can get choppy around here, especially at Viking Bay, the main incidents that lifeguards face are missing children and what they quaintly call “antisocial behaviour”.

“Our forte, if you like, is missing kids, because it happens all the time,” says Chris Panter, the curly haired, 23-year-old senior lifeguard at Margate. “On a busy day, we could get double digits. The most I’ve seen is in the 20s of how many we have personally dealt with.” Almost all of these cases are resolved quickly, without much fuss, but if a child has been missing for 15 minutes and was last seen near the sea, the coastguard has to be deployed.

Earlier this summer, as schools finished and the heatwave ramped up, there was a rash of fights on Margate beach. But an increased police presence and some targeted arrests seem to have made a difference. “It’s the accessibility from the trains, I think,” says Panter. “You’ve got 50, 60, 70 kids, all without parents, and things kick off. You can kind of imagine the things that happen.”

So, it might be one of the best summer jobs, but it can also be a complex and challenging one. The fact that these negotiations and decisions are being undertaken by lifeguards as young as 16 makes their maturity even more impressive. “There’s such a big footfall at somewhere like Margate,” says Ring, “and within that, there are people who are drinking or having too much sun, and then some people do mess up. I suppose we are an emergency service and we control the beach. So we can be police officers sometimes, we can be counsellors, we are lifeguards, we’re paramedics, we’re a bit of everything – with our yellow tops on.”

When he’s not lifeguarding, Panter studies paramedic science at the University of Portsmouth. He decided to go into that field after rescuing an eight-year-old boy in his second year as a lifeguard, when he was 18. “He had a seizure and then went into respiratory arrest,” recalls Panter. “He stopped breathing, so it was pads on, oxygen, everything. Those are days where you’re like, ‘OK. We did good today!’ It’s one of those days where you think, ‘What would have happened if we weren’t here?’ Because some days, if there’s slow numbers, you get comfortable. But there are some days where, if we weren’t here, things could have gone dramatically wrong.”

On this particular Wednesday at Viking Bay in Broadstairs, with the tide low, the beach does not exactly feel full of menace. At 10am, the lifeguards put out their large red-and-yellow banners, to demarcate the areas they are specifically patrolling and that are safest to swim in. (If the RNLI could make you learn one thing from this article, it would be: swim between the bloody flags.) Over the next couple of hours, a pair of Gucci sunglasses are lost, a bank card is found; a child, probably 11 or 12, loses his parents, but Ring tracks them down in less than a minute.

In the downtime, it’s hard not to grill the guards about their war stories. For 21-year-old Josh Jones, who has a beard and smiles a lot, now in his sixth season as a lifeguard, nothing will ever match the fear and exhilaration of the first rescue. Before you do one, however much training you have completed, you always wonder how you will react. Will you freeze? Will you run out of puff? His was at Broadstairs: a group of kids had been jumping into the sea off the slipway, but two of them had underestimated the current and couldn’t get back in to the shore.

RNLI lifeguards on Broadstairs beach.
RNLI lifeguards on Broadstairs beach. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

“They were proper struggling: one kid was ‘climbing the ladder’ we call it, he didn’t know what he was doing and was getting carried out to sea,” says Jones. “It was just crazy, but the adrenaline was running through you like nothing else. You have got tunnel vision just for this one person. You bring him in and it doesn’t stop there: they’re breathing heavy and they don’t really understand what’s going on. Then as soon as I got him in, one of his friends, a girl, jumped off the slipway and almost drowned. So I got back in, grabbed her, then luckily the ambulance came pretty quickly because that first boy, he wasn’t in a great state.”

Other stories keep coming: the two young girls who were blown two miles out to sea on a unicorn inflatable; the time when the soul weekender was on in Margate and seven missing children sat in the hut waiting for their parents to realise they had gone awol for the afternoon. And the more comic ones. “I’ve had some weird situations with people doing inappropriate acts with other people in the sea,” says Jones, with a snicker. “People come up to you like, ‘Can you tell them to stop doing that?’ And you’re like, ‘It’s not really my job but I guess…’ So you go over there: ‘Oh, hi! Can you not do that please?’ Yeah, it can be a bit of a strange job sometimes.”

Then, at 4pm, some action! The tide has come in, and the wind picks up. Swimming conditions, previously benign, now have a little bit of an edge to them, specifically an unseen, hard-to-read current that swirls around the pier at the left edge of Viking Bay. Close to shore, children laugh deliriously as they are wiped out by waves, but it is a middle-aged man in green trunks about 200m further out who is starting to alarm Sam Anderson, stationed on foot at the water’s edge. He radios to the main hut for the guards there to turn the binos on him. A couple of minutes later, Anderson receives word back that he may need to effect a rescue. He strips off his top, grabs the rescue board, which is like a long surfboard made from dense fibreglass, hurls himself into the water and paddles furiously.

It’s all pretty dramatic, but in vain. No, the guy doesn’t drown, but when Anderson is about 20m from Green Trunks, a man on the pier notices him struggling and throws him a life ring. Green Trunks – AKA Leonard, on a day trip from north London with his ex-partner and her daughter – is pulled to some steps, where, exhausted, he hauls himself out the water. Anderson paddles back to shore, but then catches up with Leonard to check that he is not suffering from any adverse effects: in particular secondary drowning, where a person glugs water, which ends up in their lungs and they later end up “dry drowning”. But Leonard seems unhurt and in good spirits.

Putting up safety signs at the start of the day in Broadstairs.
Putting up safety signs at the start of the day in Broadstairs. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

“I’ve been coming to Broadstairs every year for about the past 20 years,” Leonard tells me, back on the sand. “So I know the bay quite well, but today there’s a stronger current out there. I was starting to tire and I’d taken in a few mouthfuls. I was swimming, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. I wasn’t moving! But I knew the lifeguards were there, so it was a measured risk.”

In Anderson’s view, Leonard was extremely fortunate he didn’t end up in more serious trouble. “I don’t think he knew how risky it was for him,” he says. “He told me that his plan was to make the ladder if it got a bit sketchy. But that’s not a good plan because today there were metre-high waves, pushing him against the wall, so he’s lucky he didn’t get scraped up a fair bit.”

As we speak, Leonard is back in the water, frolicking in the surf, oblivious to his close shave. And this, in many ways, is the lot of the lifeguard: you have to be the Cassandra of the beach, spotting dangers where others do not, but not too much of a fun-sponging tyrant that people resent you for your pernickety jobsworthiness. As the sun gradually sets on Viking Bay, the RNLI team seems to have struck an excellent balance. Matt and his sons can dig their hole. Leonard can swim as much as he wants, but maybe he should try to keep within the flags from now on. The kids on the pier will continue to tombstone, and you can only ask them politely not to.

“A majority of people do respect you and will listen to you,” says Jones. “But you do get people that will just completely ignore you. Or will do the opposite and do something just to annoy you. So you’re like, ‘Can you stop pier-jumping?’ And then they’ll jump off backwards while looking at you. And you’re like, ‘Aw, thanks mate.’”

At 6pm, a lifeguard announces on the PA that the Viking Bay station is closing for the day. Swimmers now do so at their own risk, until 10am tomorrow. A group around the hut gives them a warm round of applause. Another man comes up to thank them for their work. The RNLI is a charity that receives no government funding: about 92% of its income is from donations. Lifeguard wages are typically covered by local authorities and beach owners, but most of the funding for the service comes from voluntary contributions. Probably the greatest moment in its fundraising history came in July 2021 when Nigel Farage described the RNLI as a “taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs” and more than £200,000 rolled in the next day.

“The best thing,” says Jones, “is when you’re sitting there and someone might come over with a little free ice-cream for you: ‘Here you go guys. Thank you!’ It’s brilliant, honestly, being at the beach: you are seeing everyone around you so happy. Usually, like nine times out of 10, you can’t beat it.”

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