It seems that the new system in Greater Knysna, which has the beach lifeguarding service as a division of the NSRI, is working well, with no major incidents or drownings reported this holiday season.
This is not to say that the watchdogs of our waterways have not been busy. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth. But their presence and indeed proactive behaviour has surely been a testament to the old adage that ‘prevention is better than cure’.
With approximately 110 000 people visiting the beaches of Greater Knysna over the busy season, at the time of going to press, the lifeguards had attended to 113 incidents, including 38 first aid emergencies, two missing persons, and 73 rescues/help outs.
They have also had to close Swartvlei, Buffalo Bay or Myoli beach 12 times due to shark sightings. All this was handled by 30 lifeguards working from 9.30 am to 6 pm seven days a week, under the leadership of the Knysna Life Guard Operations Manager Mike Wood, a man who has more years of lifesaving experience than he’s prepared to admit.
We caught up with Mike at the Swartvlei Rivermouth Beach, where he was checking up on three lifeguards who were on duty there. He was particularly proud to point out that one of them was his granddaughter Jaylene Engelbrecht, who is usually part of the Durban Life Saving team but had come down to work alongside ‘grandad’ over the holiday season. She has thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on experience of working the Sedgefield beach with Xolani Qakatayo and Leith Wardlaw.
“It’s been very, very busy,” she said, “But very rewarding too. The beachgoers are mostly very appreciative of what we do, especially those who have children with them.”
Their busiest days by far were 31 December and 1 January, not only because the beaches were packed with New Year revellers as is tradition, but the Spring Tide brought extremely high waters and very strong and fast-moving currents.
“We did 25 Rescues over a two-hour period on Saturday,” Leith told us.
Mike said that at one stage, the water was rushing out at about 25km/h, which meant that very tight control had to be kept on swimmers to ensure that nobody got washed away.
“And we also had blue bottles to contend with,” added Leith.
Sadly, their biggest problem was bottles of another sort. Mike says that during the holiday season, there were far too many people drinking alcohol on the beach, and the presence of Law Enforcement was down to a minimum.
“This is something we are not mandated or even able to control,” says Mike, pointing out that there are good reasons that drinking on the beach is illegal. Drunk people near the water are not only a danger to themselves but also others, especially when they attempt to swim.
“And added to this, at times it got quite unpleasant for families on the beach,” he told us, “At one stage, I had to pull two of my female lifeguards off the beach as intoxicated men had started harassing them.”
With understandable concern for his team members, Mike told us that he believes that Law Enforcement should look into employing seasonal, visible beach monitors in order to keep this problem to a minimum.
“But all in all, it’s been a good season – so far, at least,” he said, “ And there’s no reason that trend shouldn’t continue. If lifeguards can keep people swimming in the designated areas (between the flags), they are better able to watch over them and react swiftly to prevent an ‘incident’ from becoming a tragedy.”