In line with The Phuket News’ regular coverage of beach safety issues, we have reproduced the letter here in full:
For five years now, I have served as a volunteer lifeguard on Phuket’s west coast beaches. Soon after I started I quickly found myself battling dangerous surf, participating in numerous life and death rescues, riding with critical patients in the ambulance to hospital and recovering bodies with my fellow lifeguards.
It started in early 2013, as I arrived on Phuket to enjoy my retirement. I looked forward to a more healthy and stress-free lifestyle on the island.
I soon took up ocean swimming to maintain my health and get fit. I started in Kamala, swimming as far as I could. At first it wasn’t very far. But I didn’t quit.
After a few months, I was able to swim from Kamala to Laem Singh and back. By May of 2013, I was able to swim from Kamala to Surin Beach, bodysurf for an hour or two, and then swim back to Kamala.
It was on one of my swim/bodysurf sessions to Surin Beach that I encountered the local lifeguards doing some training. By then, I had read several news articles about frequent drownings, along with some graphic photos.
I remembered a news article where the local government pleaded with the public to volunteer at the beaches to help stop the drownings.
So when I saw the lifeguards training that day, I nervously approached them. To be honest, a couple of the guards looked a bit rough, and I was worried they might laugh at me, or tell me to leave them alone.
I don’t know why, but those news stories and graphic photos of the deceased I saw stuck in my mind.
So I walked up to them, swim fins in hand, and asked if they accepted volunteers.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.
When they understood what I was asking, and realised I was sincerely interested in what they do, the lifeguards welcomed me to train with their squad.
It was just a few weeks after I finished training that I made my first major rescue – hauling in a Singaporean tourist from the heavy Phuket surf.
It all happened very fast and my 20 years of experience as a licensed paramedic kicked in. The lifeguards asked me to ride with the victims in the ambulance to Thalang Hospital.
Actually, they sort of pushed me in, as I was reluctant. One of our two patients was in serious condition with respiratory difficulty and was gasping for air, coughing violently and vomiting sea water.
EMS and I worked together in the back to keep his airway open, and oxygen flowing to his lungs, while we made our way to hospital.
The look of fear and panic on that man’s face, as the ambulance sirens yelped and wailed, remains etched in my mind. At that moment, he was fighting for his life.
I asked what his name was. He could barely respond. I held his hand. Using his first name, I told him over and over, “We got you, you’re out of the water, everything is okay now. Try to relax.
You’re going to be fine.” And, gradually, he did relax. He was able to take better and deeper breaths of the oxygen. After two days in hospital, he returned to Singapore, fully recovered.
In the last five years, I have spent over 2,000 hours on Phuket’s beaches as a volunteer lifeguard. I have rescued many, and I have seen some die.
I have weathered monsoon rain and lightning on the beaches, alongside the Thai lifeguards, under the tents. I understand how difficult and dangerous this job is.
Since the 2017 lifeguard budget cut, however, I have observed a steady decline in lifeguard effectiveness on Phuket.
In my opinion, this is not primarily caused by lack of training (although more training never hurts!).
The yellow lifeguard tents, designed for light winds and fair weather, are not safe to use during monsoon season. Several have already been blown apart this year.
On the beach, monsoon squalls with heavy winds, rain, and lightning, often appear on the horizon suddenly.
Two weeks ago, a fast-moving storm squall took us by surprise, and we moved a tourist couple and their two children to “safety” under the tent.
But the wind and rain continued to increase, and I wondered if the tent would blow away, and all of us under it would go with it.
I was relieved when, over an hour later, the wind started to subside.
Surely we must do better than this!
The continuous postponement of promised outside training for ALL of Phuket’s lifeguards (it has been put off four times this year), lack of safe shelter, and worn out equipment long past it’s useful life, is taking it’s toll on the lifeguards ability to do the job.
Money that is being spent elsewhere should be immediately diverted to replacing old equipment, constructing safe beach facilities and hiring and training additional lifeguards.
Until this happens, the weekly tragedies will continue.
Every time I read about another preventable drowning, my heart breaks all over again.
When will Phuket’s lifeguards receive the support they need to succeed?