One For The Lifeguards

The closest I have ever come to death was when, at about 12, I was swept out to sea. I was swimming between the flags, on a sandbar where the water was about up to my chest, and suddenly found myself in deep water. My sister was nearby, on a lilo and she grabbed me. However, she was not able to pull me onto the lilo. For what seemed like half an hour, but may have been five minutes for all I know, I hung onto the lilo as well as I could, helped by my sister, but stuck on the underside. Each wave broke over us bursting into my mouth and eyes. I was too scared to let go and swim around to try to grab the lilo from the other side, but also doubted I could hold on much longer.

A large number of people were swept out at the same time, and the lifeguards came out in to haul people out. They kept shouting at us, “You’re ok”, while we desperately tried to call them telling them we were not. Eventually a lifeguard jumped from the boat and came over to pull us into shore while the boat went off in search of others.

What does all this have to do with science, you might ask. Well what I understood had happened was that a sandbar had suddenly collapsed, plunging us all into deeper waters. I can’t remember if the lifeguard told me this, or I heard it somewhere else. But the other day I interviewed December’s Cool Scientist, Dr Rob Brander, also known as Dr Rip. Brander has made a huge contribution to safety on Australia’s beaches by telling people how to avoid getting caught in rips. He told me that sandbanks do not collapse. Rather a combination of factors may cause the water to get suddenly deeper, and from there one can get swept out so that you are well out of your depth.

It turns out our knowledge of rips is surprisingly poor, and Brander is doing his best to fix this, including exploring the idea that, rather than dragging you out to see, most rips actually run in circles, and if you can float long enough without panicking, will eventually deposit you back on a sandbar.

I don’t swim in the ocean much these days, but the piece reminded me how much I owe to lifeguards (even if the one who saved my life possibly implanted incorrect knowledge in my head at the time). I thought I would take the chance to pay tribute to a friend who works as a lifeguard, in the hopefully rip-free environment of swimming pools, Nicky Haslinghouse. I just discovered that Nicky not only pulled a  child out of a pool, but also resuscitated her. Presumably this is not all that rare, and seldom gets much comment, other than from the friends and family of the person saved. That however, is perhaps the point. The more normal it is, the more lives are saved, the more lifeguards as a whole deserve recognition. Since Nicky happens to be my friend I’m honouring the entire community, including the unknown guard who dragged me out of the water, by paying tribute to her.

Oh and by the way, I discovered Nicky also volunteered when the Homeless World Cup came to Melbourne. The Homeless World Cup, was for me one of the best reasons to be alive. An inspirational program helping put meaning into the lives of the most disadvantaged people in any country, and one that brought the city to life while it visited. In writing this I was a bit shocked to discover the 2012 cup only happened this week, and I did not hear the faintest peep of media (mainstream or social) about it. A pity, and maybe even an outrage, but now that I know, congratulations to the Chilean team (I won’t say congratulations to Chile – the real triumph for a country would be to have so few homeless people their team can’t win anything).

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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