A 36-year-old Thai tourist died from drowning despite being pulled from the surf by bystanders at Layan Beach last week (May 1). Attempts to revive the tourist, Sanya Makwut, failed and other tourists were forced to watch as his body was carried away.
There are no lifeguards on patrol at Layan beach, or at the adjoining Leypang Beach, and the death of Mr Sanya marked the first beach drowning of the year during the notorious southwest monsoon, when dangerous surf and flash rips dominate along Phuket’s west coast.
With no central organisation to contact for information on the current status of lifeguards patrolling Phuket’s beaches, or of rescues or drownings that may have occurred, The Phuket News learned of Mr Sanya’s death only after bystanders on the beach contacted the newspaper directly.
Likewise, this week a report of a foreign man missing in the water at Layan Beach on Tuesday afternoon (May 8) raised fears of another drowning.
The alarm was raised by a foreign woman living in the nearby Man Tawan housing estate who reported seeing a man with “fair-skin” and black hair in the water.
“She said that a strong wave about two metres tall hit the man, but she did not see him resurface,” explained Wirut Saman, an official at the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation office at the Cherng Talay Tambon Administration Organisation (OrBorTor).
With no lifeguards hired to patrol Layan or Leypang beaches, the DDPM Cherng Talay office is currently tasked with overseeing beach safety there.
The rescue team quickly began a search for the man, looking for any person in trouble in the water. However, the search was called hours later off as darkness fell.
The search resumed the next morning, but failed to locate the man or his body, leaving the search team to believe that the man may have returned to the beach safely later, or that the woman might have mistaken what she saw.
“The area where the man reportedly went missing has no lifeguards on duty,” Suchart Choothong, head of the DDPM Cherng Talay speedboat rescue unit stationed at Layan Beach, explained to The Phuket News.
“We don’t have the skills to rescue people in strong surf. Honestly, all we have are just officials who take care of the speedboat rescue unit to support or provide help as best we can.
“We need lifeguards who have the special skills to save people’s lives,” Mr Suchart pleaded.
That sentiment was echoed loudly by Daren Jenner, International Marine Safety Officer, ISLA, based at Surin Beach, who noted that all beaches except Patong failed in the ISLA assessment of lifeguard protection.
“The International Surf Lifesaving Association has trained observers on Phuket’s popular beaches nearly every day. Most of these beaches have NO lifeguards at all. This situation is ongoing since 1st April 2018.” said Daren Jenner, International Marine Safety Officer, ISLA, based at Surin Beach.
LP Laikhum Co Ltd under a government contract provides lifeguards at Surin, Bang Tao and Mai Khao beaches. However, coverage is fairly thin, with six lifeguards stationed at Surin, 11 at Bang Tao and just five to cover the 11-kilometre-long Mai Khao Beach – easily Phuket’s longest stretch of sand.
LP Laikhum Managing Director Dr Nutpol Sirisawang told The Phuket News this week that the lifeguards are on duty from 8:30am to 6:30pm each day, seven days a week, with four lifeguards “spare” to assist or cover when other lifeguards are not working, as each lifeguard has four days off each month.
However, of grave concern has been Dr Nutpol’s claims in front of Phuket Governor Norraphat Plodthong at the LP Laikhum lifeguard official launch on April 5, when he said, “Our lifeguards’ certificates have been issued by The Royal Life Saving Society Canada. They have completed the life-saving instructor course conducted by Thai Life Saving Club Surf lifesaving trainer through a course organised by the Phuket OrBorJor (Phuket Provincial Administration Organisation).”
Asked this week what qualifications his lifeguards have, Dr Nutpol avoided recognised certification and instead said, “Our lifeguards can swim, they know how to render assistance in the water, and they can use equipment such as surf rescue boards as well as medical equipment and provide first aid, including CPR.
“Also, lifeguards have to be fit and strong,” he added.
No details of the current government contract LP Laikhum is serving have been made publicly available since the previous B13 million contract to provide lifeguards at beaches in all three Phuket districts was rescinded, as confirmed by Phuket Governor Norraphat on April 5.
However, Dr Nutpol this week revealed that the current contract came into effect on April 16. Incredibly, he also stated that the contract will terminate at the end of this month (May 31), with no clarification of why that is so.
Dr Nutpol also declined to reveal how much the current contract is worth.
He was willing to say that his lifeguards actually started patrols on April 1, and that from April 1-15, “Laikhum had to pay by themselves to provide lifeguards”.
He also confirmed that his regular lifeguards are paid B12,000 per month and his chief lifeguards B15,000 per month.
Footing the bill for this is the Mai Khao OrBorTor, a fact that Dr Nutpol flamed the Phuket OrBorJor for, as the Phuket OrBorJor by contract is supposed to be providing the funding.
“We are still waiting for the OrBorJor to approve the budget to be paid to the Mai Khao OrBorTor” Dr Nutpol said.
Oddly, he added, “We are still waiting for a letter from the Phuket Governor... It is in the process.”
Dr Nutpol’s explanation of the situation is odd in that the Phuket Provincial Office, headed by the Provincial Governor, has never been formally involved in any of the funding issues at any stage of Phuket’s lifeguard crisis since the critical failure in October last year.
However, coming to the same understanding as the rest of Phuket's lifesaving community, Dr Nutpol pointed out that failure to provide the funding is jeopardising people’s lives.
“The Cherng Talay OrBorTor sent a request for the budget for lifesaving equipment which still has not been approved by the OrBorJor. They are still waiting for equipment at Surin and Bang Tao beaches that can save people’s lives,” he said.
“The OrBorJor does not have the budget to truly support the OrBorTor for this. The OrBorTor only has the budget to pay for staff, not a budget for equipment… not even for flags,” Dr Nutpol said.
“They have been very slow to respond to requests. One written request was sent on April 5, as of this week we still have not had a response.
“This has resulted in OrBorTor Sakoo being unable to even offer a contract to have lifeguards at Nai Thon and Nai Yang beaches. We have lifeguards there as “volunteers” from April 5-15, but they are not there any more.”
Dr Nutpol blamed the Phuket OrBorJor process for government contracts as “very complicated” and “very difficult for companies to be selected”.
“I do not understand this... The OrBorJor has the funds. Look at Patong Municipality, for example, they have got their lifeguards already,” Dr Nutpol pointed out.
In that Dr Nutpol is not wrong. Under Patong Mayor Chalermluck Kebsup, Patong Municipality is not gambling with any tourists’ lives. The municipality has hired the Phuket Lifeguard Service (PLS) to provide their fully qualified, experienced lifeguards to officially patrol Patong Beach.
The PLS held the OrBorJor contract for years until the OrBorJor refused to increase the contract budget, sparking the lifeguard crisis in the first place.
Vitanya Chuayuan, Deputy Chief of the Phuket Lifeguard Service, told The Phuket News this week that her team has 26 lifeguards posted at nine lifeguard stations along Phuket’s busiest tourist beach.
The number of lifeguards on hand allows each lifeguard to have one day off a week, she explained.
The lifeguards at Patong on patrol from 8:30am to 6:30pm, seven days a week.
“They all have Surf Lifesaving Level 1, 2 and 3 certification and they are very fit, experienced and can communicate in English,” Ms Vitanya said.
Under a B3.5mn contract fully funded by Patong Municipality alone, the lifeguards began their patrols at Patong on April 27 and will continue to do so until at least Sept 30.
Regular lifeguards are paid B15,000 per month while lifeguard station chiefs are paid B20,000 per month, Ms Vitanya pointed out.
North of Patong at Kamala Beach there are currently no lifeguards on patrol. Yet that might not be surprising as Phuket-based soldiers on March 6 “asked” experienced former lifeguards patrolling the beach for free as volunteers to leave the beach and no longer provide lifeguard patrols for tourists as, confusingly, the volunteers did not work for LP Laikhum.
“We have not hired any yet because we are still looking for people who want to work as lifeguards here.
“We are still open for applications for people to join us,” Kamala OrBorTor Deputy Chief Executive Nopporn Karuna said this week.
Looking forwad, Mr Nopporn said, “There will be six lifeguards at three different locations on Kamala Beach, each with a chief lifeguard. The lifeguards will be on duty from 8am-6:30pm and will have one day off a week.
“But each lifeguard team has to manage their own schedule for patrols on the beach every day.”
Regarding qualifications, Mr Nopporn was not fussy. “First of all, they have to be good swimmers. If they have experience as a lifeguard, that would be nice,” he said.
The Kamala OrBorTor wants to provide lifeguards from June 1 through Sept 30. However the budget figures provided by Mr Nopporn created a mathematical anomaly.
Regular lifeguards are to be paid B12,000 a month and chief lifeguards B15,000 a month through combined funding of B56,000 provided by the Kamala OrBorTor and B519,860 provided by the OrBorJor.
With salaries for the period amounting to B117,000, the combined funding provides a surplus of B458,860, which has yet to be explained.
Rachen Phuntarakit, Chief Administrative Officer (Palad) at Karon Municipality, has set his standards much higher to protect tourists from drowning at Karon and Kata beaches.
“We don’t want volunteers. We have hired real lifeguard only,” he said.
There are 26 lifeguards in total at eight lifeguard stations on Karon Beach and three stations on Kata Beach, on duty from 8:30am to 6:30pm each day.
“They each have one day off a week, but they manage their on duty roster,” Mr Rachen explained.
“Our chief lifeguards have no less than two years’ experience and each of them have skills confirmed by a certificate issued by a recognised organisation,” he added.
Karon Municipality is funding their own lifeguard patrols, to protect the beaches from April 3 to Sept 30, with a budget of B300,000. Regular lifeguards are paid B14,000 and chief lifeguards B17,000 a month.
Meanwhile, Rawai Municipality under Mayor Aroon Solos has taken a similar stance. His administration has hired only those who have been trained and gained experience previously by working as lifeguards with the PLS.
There are eight lifeguards posted at Nai Harn Beach and another two assigned at nearby Yanui Beach, together to ensure lifeguards are on duty seven days a week, with each lifeguard having one day off a week.
“The lifeguards started this month and will continue until Sept 30,” Mayor Aroon said.
The council has hired the lifeguards under a B130,000 contract, funded entirely by Rawai Municipality, with regular lifeguards paid B15,000 per month and chief lifeguards B18,000 per month.
However, Mayor Aroon is far from satisfied with the protection his office can provide under its own finances.
“We are still waiting for the support budget from the OrBorJor. We have no idea how much that will be, and we look forward to learning when that will be,” a frustrated Mayor Aroon said this week.
“We cannot plan better lifeguard coverage without this,” he said.