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Legacy: Lifeguard ‘founder’ dream for water safety to become standard education closer to reality

Legacy: Lifeguard ‘founder’ dream for water safety to become standard education closer to reality

PHUKET: The island’s core contingent of lifeguards this week vowed to carry on the work of “founding father” Prathaiyuth Chuayaun in the hope of realising his dream of swimming and surf survival skills becoming a standard element of young children’s education.

By Tanyaluk Sakoot

Saturday 24 August 2019, 09:00AM

A lifeguard watches over tourists at Patong Beach while wearing a black armband as a mark of respect after the death of Phuket lifeguard founder Prathaiyuth Chuayuan last Friday (Aug 16). Photo: Tanyaluk Sakoot

A lifeguard watches over tourists at Patong Beach while wearing a black armband as a mark of respect after the death of Phuket lifeguard founder Prathaiyuth Chuayuan last Friday (Aug 16). Photo: Tanyaluk Sakoot

Mr Prathaiyuth passed away after a heart attack last Friday morning (Aug 16). He was 57.

Funeral services for him were held at Wat Suwankhiriwong (Wat Patong), with his cremation held at the Laem Petch temple opposite Loma Park on the Patong beachfront on Wednesday (Aug 21).

Mr Prathaiyuth, better known just as “P’ Nut”, helped to develop Phuket’s first beach lifeguards some 20 years ago and drove them to achieve international certification and even compete in international lifesaving events.

Patong Chief Lifeguard Somprasong Sangchart worked alongside Mr Prathaiyuth for years as one of the key members of the Phuket Lifeguard Service, which for more than a decade provided trained, experienced at 12 of the key tourist beaches along Phuket’s west coast.

“Prathaiyuth was determined in his goal to teach life saving and drowning prevention to people. He always helped to teach, train and support new lifeguards, even lifeguards in Thailand do not get the same pay as lifeguards abroad.

“He is my inspiration for being a lifeguard. He will be honoured as my teacher forever.”

Yet Mr Prathaiyuth’s true legacy may be on the verge of becoming something much greater than ever anticipated.

The Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec), under the Ministry of Education, is currently reviewing a training manual from the Phuket Lifeguard Service (PLS), founded by Mr Prathaiyuth and his wife Ms Witanya, to be used to teach water safety and survival skills to all students in the country from primary school to high school as standard, required education.

“The Office of the Basic Education Commission is very interested in what the Phuket Lifeguard Service is doing, and life saving and drowning prevention skills may well be officially added to the education system soon,” Ms Witanya said.

“We currently conduct lifesaving courses for students in schools and at universities in Bangkok and nearby provinces, and we plan to soon hold lifesaving and drowning prevention classes at local schools in Phuket,” she added.

The PLS has long conducted an ongoing series of water safety and lifesaving classes for young children in Patong – free, and open to any children who want to take part.

“The PLS has not stopped. We continue to train and recruit lifeguards,” Ms Witanya said.

“P’ Nut needed people to learn water safety, to make people at beaches more aware of the dangers, especially Phuket people and tourists. And now surf lifesaving has become popular and well known nationwide, and especially in Phuket,” she added.

In the footsteps of Mr Prathaiyuth’s drive for excellence, the Sports Authority of Thailand will be supporting the “Lifesaving Thailand Championship” competition to be held in Phuket next year, Ms Witanya explained.

“The purpose of this competition is to select the national Thai lifesaving team to join the Lifesaving World Championships of 2020 in Riccione, Italy,” she noted.

“We have about six people who are the main lifeguards who run the PLS. We have encountered lots of obstacles along the way, but we won’t give up. We are moving together toward our goal. Sometimes we might move slowly, other times quickly, but we won’t stop working towards our dream,” Ms Witanya said.

Working with Australians David Field and Jayne MacDougall, Mr Prathaiyuth drove to improve the skills of the handful of volunteer lifeguards Phuket had some 20 years ago through training sessions from professional lifesavers visiting from Australia.

The lifeguard training programme blossomed, inspiring many local Thai “beach boys” to join their ranks to help save lives – mostly of tourists – in Phuket’s dangerous low season surf from May through October each year.

Mr Prathaiyuth and Ms Witanya for years together operated Phuket Lifeguards Service Co Ltd, which provided lifeguards all along Phuket’s west coast under a government concession offered through the Phuket Provincial Administration Organisation (PPAO, or OrBorJor).

Then the PLS encountered a critical hurdle. The PPAO arrangement ended in Sept 2017 after Mr Prathaiyuth on behalf of the PLS refused to accept the terms offered by the PPAO, which for the third consecutive year had refused to increase the budget to be provided in order to provide qualified, experienced lifeguards on Phuket’s beaches. The PPAO had even slashed the budget by 10%.

The salaries to be paid to lifeguards was not commensurate with them risking their lives, and the budget provided would not allow for the modern, functioning equipment needed by lifeguards to carry out rescues, Mr Prathaiyuth explained.

Instead, the lack of proper equipment would only endanger the lives of the lifeguards themselves, he added.

With no other operators willing to take up the role of providing lifeguards under the contract offered, Phuket’s system of lifeguard protection at the beaches fell into disarray.

The Phuket Governor at the time, Norraphat Plodthong, over-ordered the stance by PPAO Acting Chief Watcharin Pathomwattanapong and mandated that all local municipalities and administrations organise lifeguard patrols for beaches in their own respective areas.

Patong Mayor Chalerm­luck Kebsup wasted no time in making sure that Mr Prathaiyuth and his team of qualified, trained lifeguards were hired to ensure lifeguard patrols on Phuket’s busiest tourist beach, Patong.

Mr Prathaiyuth leaves Phuket not just with a legacy of essential lifesaving beach guards, but also a long-standing programme of teaching children essential surf survival skills and lifesaving techniques, including basic CPR.

As recently as last week Mr Prathaiyuth led a junior surf lifesaving course, and earlier this month led yet another lifeguard training intensive to ensure their skills were honed and up-to-date.

Volunteers were, and remain, always welcome.

Daren Jenner, the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA) Marine Safety Officer for Phuket, expressed his sincerest condolences to Mr Prathaiyuth’s friends and family.

“I had many good conversations with him over the years. He was a good-hearted man who did his best in difficult and changing circumstances,” Mr Jenner said.

“A very big loss for Phuket and the lifesaving community here. ISLA sends our deepest respect for his long commitment to ocean safety in SE Asia.”

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