Baywatch

24th August 2007 at 01:00
Stephen Manning meets two men who have found that being a teacher and a lifeguard is a perfect combination

You may well have spent those last few days of the summer term daydreaming about being on the beach, but Robin Howell spent his last Friday knowing he would be there the following morning doing his second job.

The 37-year-old geography teacher at Humphry Davy School in Penzance, Cornwall, spends the summer as a lifeguard on Perranporth beach.

Robin estimates that, on a busy summer day, there might be 8,000 to 10,000 people visiting the beach, with 1,000 of them in the water. Suddenly, controlling a classroom doesn't seem so terrifying after all.

He is usually one of a team of seven, rotating between its base and a maximum hour-and-a-half at the water's edge on this part of the North Cornwall coast.

"We are the first responders, so we have to carry oxygen and supply first aid. We've had a couple of mass rescues recently, including one a few weeks ago when about 30 people got caught up in a big rip current (when the water flows from shore out to sea). We had to use every bit of kit but we got everybody to shore safely."

Robin has been a lifeguard for 16 years and has appeared several times on the BBC's Seaside Rescue. But since becoming a teacher five years ago, he has scaled down his beach work. Now he is only on duty as a lifeguard for the peak season the six weeks of summer.

The family beach is an area of great natural beauty and plays host to seals and dolphins. "There is a pod of dolphins, about 10 or 15. When I'm out on the jet skis, they will come right up and swim alongside because they love playing. You worry about running them over but they are far better swimmers."

Robin has lived in Perranporth all his life, apart from a couple of years spent in Australia and New Zealand. Coastal activity is central to Cornish life and Robin makes use of the beach as material for the classroom. He also conducts two field trips a term for his pupils one for GCSE and one for Year 8s.

"I love teaching and we are in a geologically fascinating place. I take photos of coastal erosion cliffs, arches and stacks (isolated standing rocks in the sea). Perran Sands, part of the beach, has a walkway that is really useful for examining coastal defences." He has also started to make films of the area for possible classroom use.

One of his lifeguard colleagues is about to enter the classroom fray as a newly qualified teacher. Margh Brewer has just completed his PGCE year and from September will teach science at Camborne Science and Community College in Cornwall. Now 26, he first worked at Perranporth beach nine years ago. But long before that, he started out as a junior member of the beach's surf club.

"Every beach on the northern coast has a surf club and each has a junior section for children aged about eight to 13," he says. "In summer, there is a lot of beach and sea activity surfing and canoe racing while in the winter it's more theory stuff, things such as first aid and resuscitation.

"It's important to learn about beach awareness, for example what to do when you are in the sea and caught up in a rip current. The answer is, don't swim directly towards the shore because you'll be swimming against the full force of the sea. You swim at a 45-degree angle until you are out of the current."

The club aims to get children ready for competitive surfing, but a lot of them become lifeguards. At 16, Margh became a trainer for the younger kids and after gaining a degree in environmental science, he spent the next few years between Perranporth beach, Australia and New Zealand.

For some of his colleagues, lifeguarding is their sole career, but Margh finds combining it with teaching is a perfect mix. "If you do something too much, you lose the enjoyment," he says. "The lifeguarding season starts around Easter, but then it's usually cold and wet and not at all glamorous. So it suits me to be doing this just during the peak season the six weeks or so of summer and then the rest of the time in the classroom."

Certainly, there are worse ways than being a lifeguard to prepare you for a teaching career. "It can get quite dramatic on the beach," says Margh. "People will panic and you need to stay calm no matter what. Sometimes, people get very angry and shout at you when you're patrolling the beach. They can feel victimised, even if all you are asking them to do is to move along to a safe bathing area."

THE LIFE OF A LIFEGUARD

* If you fancy becoming a lifeguard, you could do it for the whole peak season July to early September or be a casual, on call to cover for lifeguards.

* New starters (Grade 1) are paid pound;6 per hour. There are volunteer places for lifeguards or beach patrol.

* You need a valid beach lifeguard qualification, obtainable from The Royal Life Saving Society (www.lifesavers.org.uk) or Surf Life Saving GB (www.surflifesaving.org.uk). After that, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution provides a full training and induction programme (www.rnli.org.uk).

* The training for the qualification varies but really comes down to fitness. Can you swim 200 metres in three-and-a-half minutes, 400m in seven-and-a-half, 25m underwater then 25m on the surface in 50 seconds total or do a 200m beach run in 40 seconds? Application packs will be available to download from the RNLI website from December.

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