LOOKING out to sea for the dreaded Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish; dangerous, churning choppy waves; a lost child who wandered off along the beach; or even a lost hand-bag... brothers James and John Walshe have had a busy summer.
Cork County Council manages 12 lifeguarded beaches and has 36 full-time lifeguards with a relief panel of 20 available for cover. The service runs from June until mid-September annually, operating at weekends in June and September and full-time during July and August.
“We have had to keep our eyes open and we have to be alert at all times,” says John, 19, who is planning to do an emergency medical technician course, starting this month, and who is in his third year of lifeguarding.
“This summer has been particularly busy,” says John, who with his brother, James, 21, has been keeping guard, patrolling Garryvoe Beach, making sure everyone stays safe in the water.
“Because of lockdown and travel restrictions due to Covid-19; people flocked to the beach from all over the county and beyond when the restrictions were lifted,” says John.
“The previous spell of good weather brought huge crowds of day- trippers to the sea-side to enjoy the sunshine and the sea,” says John, who also did a stint at Derrynane Beach, which was named as one of the best beaches in Ireland.
“This year was particularly busy on the water,” says John.
“People enjoyed boating, fishing, kayaking and just having fun playing games outdoors beside the sea. There was a lovely atmosphere here every day with families picnicking and doing activities.”
There are lots of things to do beside the seaside.
“There are even yoga classes going on at the beach in the morning!” says John.
The brothers who grew up in Carrigtowhill, live in Togher together and they work together. Do they get on well together?
“We have to!” he says.
“Ah no, we do get on well. We always have.”
Reflecting on their summer jobs, he said: “Lifeguarding is all about good communication, patience, concentration and reliability. It is a very responsible job and both James and I take our roles very seriously.”
James has worked as a lifeguard for four years and is a pharmaceutical chemical engineer student at UCC.
Is he the boss, being the older brother?
“Not when we’re working!” says James.
“John and I work well together. We make a good team.”
The Walshe brothers, who have a younger sister, Lydia, aged 15, both have the same goal.
“Safety at the beach and in the sea is our top priority,” says James.
“Our lifestyle and our social life is very rigid, making sure we are in the best shape possible and in top form to perform our job at the highest level. As life-guards we are well trained and we keep everything fresh in our heads as well as doing refresher safety water courses and First Aid courses throughout the year. The County Council run safety water days and we attend them regularly to keep up to date when we’re not working.”
The boys are young, fit and healthy. They are enthusiastic about their responsible job.
“There were some really hot days this year,” says James.
“We saw a lot of people here who got a bit too much sun and who didn’t put on enough sun- screen for protection. So we mentioned that to people who passed by or who called into our hut. The weather temperatures are displayed outside the hut along with the tides and the safe 100 metre swimming distance information signified by where the flags are placed.”
When the sun came out, it beckoned people to the seaside.
“People were just so happy to be outdoors, they threw caution to the wind when they were catching the rays,” says John.
“There were a lot of offshore winds some days which disguised the warmth of the sun. So yes, we saw a good few causalities suffering from sunburn!”
The boys are kept busy patrolling the beach, providing a safe-guard for all the visitors flocking to Garryvoe beach.
“We were constantly just hectic,” says James.
They cover a lot of ground as well as a lot of sea.
“We were constantly running up and down the beach all day every day keeping an eye on things.”
They keep a close eye on swimmers going out to sea too far.
“When we spot someone going out a bit far in the sea, we blow our whistle to signal them to come back before they might panic, realising they are too far out,” says John.
“People are very compliant and they abide by the safety guidelines.”
Safety is paramount when guarding the beach.
“Anything can happen on a beach,” says John.
“Unexpected things, like children climbing up a rock and slipping injuring themselves. Or children might fall while playing. We are always stationed close to the water’s edge keeping our eyes peeled and concentrating on watching the expanse of beach.
“Being close to the water is the most important thing so we can see everything that’s happening and respond immediately when we have to.”
They boys saw a lot of jellyfish this year.
“There was a lot of them about,” says John.
“A lot of crabs too. Children often stand on them and get a pinch.”
Other species like being beside the seaside too.
“Bee-stings were common enough this summer too,” says John.
“Weever fish are around in low tide and they are buried in the sand.”
Weever fish don’t sting.
“No,” says John. “They shoot venom up into the foot which is very painful. The pain subsides when the foot is submerged into hot water for 20 minutes.
“We are trained in first aid so we can deal with any stings or minor injuries.”
What other unexpected things happened?
“Just this morning we had a distressed mother whose two small children had wandered off,” says John.
“She was very upset when she came to us to report the children missing.”
The lifeguards dealt with the situation promptly and reunited mother and children within minutes.
“The main thing is to keep calm and to keep the mother calm,” says James.
“Even when someone is panicking in the water, the main thing is to keep them calm so we can get them safe to shore as quickly as possible.”
The boys, trained for all eventualities, were well equipped to deal with the mother looking for her children.
“I stayed with the mother while John and our colleague Jill looked up and down the beach for the children who hadn’t wandered very far away. The family were safely reunited.”
Three lifeguards are employed at Garryvoe beach, providing lifeguard service. Each works 44 hours a week on the week day rota.
Two were on duty at any one time while at weekends three lifeguards are on duty.
“Our job is to just watch the beach,” says John.
“When there is someone in the water, one of us will always be down there, staying close to the water keeping an eye out. The wind can change conditions within seconds.”
The lifeguards are a tight, highly-trained team.
“The other lifeguard will be in the hut, ready to treat a cut, a bruise or a sting.”
Like their marine engineer dad, John and James have been familiar with the water since they were youngsters. “Dad loves the sea,” says John.
“As young kids we were always boating on holidays. Since we were young, we both surfed, sailed and swam. In our spare time, we still love surfing. We took part in Irish Water Safety Summer Camps on the beach before we were even in our teens and at 16 we both did a life-guarding course at Douglas swimming pool for 12 Monday nights.”
They went further afield to perfect their craft and their profession.
“We spent two weekends on Inchydoney Beach training in open water and learning to use the rescue board,” says John.
Do they get chance for a Baywatch moment?
“We have to be on the ball,” says John.
So no slow-motion moments?
John and James laugh at the Baywatch association.
“We have to have speed. The life-guard’s duty is to intervene if they see somebody doing something potentially harmful.
“By intervening at once we can avert any potential danger.”
What are the most risky things people do at the beach?
“Sometimes people get separated from each other which can be scary for them,” says James.
“Lack of awareness about weather or sea conditions can often be the case. People make the decision, ‘let’s go to the beach’, on a fine day without checking the day’s weather or the tides. Being aware and being safety- aware can save lives.”
John and James are always aware of their surroundings.
“First thing when we arrive, we assess the beach for safety, making sure there are no bottles, glass or dangerous objects lying around.”
The boys, great role models for youngsters, love their job.
“Being outdoors and at a lovely location near the sea is a great way to spend the summer, even though it’s work,” says John.
“We love what we do keeping people safe and well, making a difference. Kids ask us about our equipment and about what we do. It’s great to be able to encourage them to get involved in water safety through courses being run in schools during the year and get involved in life-saving. I don’t think there’s anything better we could be doing during our summers.”
And the brothers get well looked after.
“We often head home to mum for dinner!”
DO YOU WANT TO BE A LIFEGUARD?
Cork Sports Partnership on behalf of Cork County Council is currently accepting expressions of interest for the Water Safety Awareness programme from primary schools in Cork county, actively promoting safety around water.
The Beach Lifeguard Academy piloted in Midleton College now operates in four schools, with another two waiting to get involved. The course is done during transition year with a maximum of 12 students who go through interview and tests before being accepted.
For lifeguard courses see: watersafety.ie/lifeguard-training.