Camber tragedies sparked RNLI lifeguard cover. Emma Harwood reports

The Royal National Lifeguard Institution has been formally appointed by Hastings Borough Council to operate the Hastings beach lifeguard service for three years, following a successful pilot last year.

In a separate contract Rother District Council has appointed the RNLI to supervise Bexhill and Camber beaches.

The move comes in response to the tragic events on Camber Sands in July and August 2016 where a total of seven young men – all visiting as tourists – drowned on the packed beach which attracts up to 30,000 visitors a day in peak season.

An inquest into the deaths, resumed in June 2017, heard that the beach had been manned by beach patrol staff, whose main job was reuniting lost children with their parents and dealing with lost property. But despite a number of warnings from the RNLI from 2009 to 2013 and two other deaths between 2012 and 2016, the council had declined to deploy professional lifeguards.

Under the new contracts a team of 30 trained lifeguards, who are also medically trained to the level of ambulance technicians, will be on watch each year from 25th May to the end of September until 2020.

Three stations will be based on the beaches in Hastings at Pelham, the pier, and St Leonards, and further stations will be in place at Camber and Bexhill. In addition a paramedic will be in attendance at Camber Sands on busy days.

Lifeguard Supervisor Joe Mitchell

Senior Lifeguard Supervisor Joe Mitchell, who is based at Hastings Lifeboat Station on the Stade, explained that the new contracts formed the ‘missing part of the puzzle’ following frequent safety concerns expressed by the RNLI about unsupervised tourist beaches such as Camber Sands.

In an interview with HIP Mr. Mitchell discussed how to enjoy the coast but stay safe during the summer months.

Two summers ago, tragedy struck, not once, but twice within a month on Camber Sands beach. The first occurred when two friends -Mohit Dupar and Gustavo Silva Da Cruz – came to enjoy a warm day by the coast from London on 24th July. The pair had been in the sea and were seen to be in difficulties, according to the coroner’s report. However, the body of Mr. Da Cruz, who was an asthma sufferer, was washed up later on the shore. Mr. Dupar, who had tried to save his friend, was taken unconscious to Ashford Hospital where he died four days later.

Exactly one month later, on 24th August of the same year, a group of five friends also visiting from London all drowned after it is believed they became trapped on a sandbar while playing a game of volleyball and were overtaken by the fast incoming tide, which has a powerful undercurrent. Reports at the time suggested they may have become trapped in quicksand, and families of the men blamed the lack of lifeguards for their deaths.

Senior coroner for East Sussex Alan Craze – who recorded a verdict of misadventure for all seven of the men who died – noted matters of concern regarding the three-mile Camber beach, where the distance between high water mark and low water mark is as much as one kilometre in some tides. He questioned leaving safety supervision of such a busy beach to a charity, stating “There appears to be no formal control or governance of risk management requirements. Should the present, virtually voluntary structure be examined?”

As a result of his report, the new contracts in Hastings and Rother now mean that units of paid RNLI lifeguards will be on duty between 10am and 6pm each day. The RNLI currently employs 1500 professional lifeguards under similar arrangements on 249 beaches in the UK and Channel Islands. 

Mr Mitchell was deployed with his team last summer in direct response to the tragedies as part of a trial in conjunction with both councils. He told HIP that there is now a massive education campaign underway to inform visitors to Camber  – who are mainly tourists, many of whom speak other languages – of the hidden risks involved with swimming there, including the dangers of becoming trapped on sandbars and the fast incoming tide which can effectively leave people marooned.

Five years ago the RNLI launched a campaign called Respect The Water, aiming to help anyone who might find themselves in trouble to overcome their panic instincts by floating on their back. This technique enables them to overcome the effects of cold water shock and regain control of their breathing. In 2017 seven people came forward to claim that the FLOAT technique saved their lives.

However, coastal fatality figures show that in 2017, 24 people lost their lives on the south east coast while 36 died in 2016. Of these, 33 percent did not intend to enter the water, and 79 percent of the fatalities were men.

Mr. Mitchell explained that most people drown as a result of entering cold water unexpectedly, which causes them to panic and inhale sharply, resulting in water going into their lungs.

“People drown within that first 90 seconds of going into the water, that’s the critical time. If someone’s been in the water for 20 minutes, they don’t drown.  It is all about sitting back and letting it pass.”

He added that part of the RNLI’s educational campaign was informing people about how to recognise a drowning person.

“It is not like you see in the movies, people don’t tend to drown in the way you’d expect. You expect to see splashing, but these people are so hell bent on self-preservation they just want to get oxygen, they’re not able to scream.  That’s why you need lifeguards, you need to recognise someone who’s up and down, with very little splash, very little vocalisation.”

He added that in many areas trained RNLI lifeguards were also on call as ‘first responders’ where they can be called away from beaches to attend to other medical emergencies, but that this would not yet be the case in Hastings.  “Since this is new we want to concentrate first on safety on the beach and in the water. 

“However, in the last two weeks on the beach we’ve had incidents such as a major heart attack, for example, so even being here for two weeks we’ve already dealt with those sort of situations.”

For more information including videos demonstrating these safety techniques visit:

Staying safe
• Make sure you swim on beaches where there are lifeguards
• Make sure someone knows where you are –if you are alone inform       the lifeguards and leave your belongings with them
• Stay between the red-yellow coloured bathing flags
• Never enter the water when the all-red flag is flying
• If you get into trouble in the water practice the FLOAT technique

Fight instincts to thrash around
• Lean back and extend your arms and legs
• Open up your body and fill your lungs with air
• Actions -gently move your arms and legs to help you float
• Time – take 60-90 seconds to control your breathing

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