They will talk forever about rip tides, rescue boards and mouth- to-mouth. But, reports ANDREW MARTIN, the Cornish surfers and lifeguards of Perranporth have a problem with Pamela Anderson. Photographs by STEPHEN DUPONT

If one is writing about Britain's biggest and best surf life saving club, it seems almost a duty to attempt some lumbering analogies with the most succesful television show in the world, Baywatch.

Of course, I know that Baywatch is essentially a show about breasts which touches, incidentally, on lifeguarding and beach culture. But I've never absorbed an episode, so to speak, in detail. I asked Stuart Thorn, president of Perranporth Surf Life Saving Club for the past five years, whether he had a video of the programme. "No," he said. He was quite cold. Would any of his fellow club members have one? "No."

Thorn winces every time the word Baywatch is mentioned around him, which, with the increasing fame of his club, is quite a lot. As we sat in his car overlooking the exhilarating three-mile expanse of Perran Bay, he shook his head. "It's completely unreal. There are a lot of fitness and sporting disciplines associated with lifesaving. You've got to be able to move fast, and when you look at Pamela Anderson, when you watch her running..." He trailed off in bewilderment.

Although he is 51, Thorn looks easily capable of a turn of speed. He resembles a dark James Coburn, and I was to discover that all the men in the Perranporth Club - and it has been men who've performed the club's 1,500 rescues - resemble scrawny, wind-burned cowboys. That's what living with the sea does to you. It doesn't give you the ripe musculature and refulgent skin of David Hasselhoff. Not if you live in Cornwall, it doesn't.

We looked down at the beach (one of the prettiest and longest in Cornwall), at a couple of desultory dogs and a greatcoated soul- searcher. This was the first day of the season for the council's lifeguards, who are all club members, but there wouldn't be much work for them this afternoon. One of them was putter-ing about in the club Landrover, whose roof provides the preferred lifeguarding vantage point on the days when there might be 5,000 people on the beach.

Greatcoat was now gazing at a long puddle on the beach. "A velor," Thorn solemnly explained. "It's a hole made by a rip current; it's why swimmers can be suddenly out of their depth even close to the shore. Rip currents are the flow of retreating waves, and they take you out to sea fast."

We drove to his house on the edge of Perranporth, and he showed me two videos. The first contained highlights of last year's Surf Life Saving World Championships, which were held, for the first time, in Britain - at Newquay, up the road. The event showcased the various sports which have arisen out of lifeguarding - sports which, to the untrained eye, look suspiciously like a lot of people get-ting thrown about in the sea. Some competi- tors clung to rescue boards (like surf boards, but wide enough to accommodate an un- conscious rescuee), or precariously piloted surf skis (thin, solid canoes). Others rowed surf boats, which fly vertically through the waves with one man standing - surely unnecessarily - in the stern, with an extra-long steering oar.

The competition was dominated by a blond Australian called Trevor Hendy, who looked like a surfer from Central Casting. He was the best at running into the sea, and equally good at running out of the sea; he also excelled at running across the sand. "He's a legend in Australia," marvelled Thorn. "He gets millions in sponsorship from all these healthy cereal companies. You know, fruit and fibre stuff." From his victor's podium, Trevor graciously praised the losers. Perranporth came 12th - the highest-placed British club. (They won the last British Championship, held in 1993.)

Over the video's closing credits, a power ballad blasted forth: "Where the earth meets the sea, where the waves meet the sky.../We'll be standing by," groaned the male vocalist. "Er...someone wrote that," said Thorn evasively. It was, it transpired, called "Stand inside the Circle - The Lifesaver's Song", and it was composed, naturally, in Australia.

Actually, the lifesavers of Perranporth are not as awestruck by Australia as, say, a week-end cowboy impersonator from Bolton might be by Texas. In the World Championships, the Australians were impressed - indeed, stretched - by the surf at Newquay. "Australians say it's just as good in Cornwall as back home. The only problem is the short season." Many of the Perranporth club members have lifeguarded in Australia, and many Australians have worked on the beach at Perranporth. It tends to be the Australians who return.

The second video was a compilation of the club's regular slots on 999, the BBC series depicting real-life rescues, A film crew spent most of last summer on the beach. There were many hand-held, sea-blurred shots of surfers being hauled - mute and chastened - on to the club's inshore rescue boat.

Thorn and I now headed for the beach clubhouse and, on our way, we bumped into Danny Miners, a shy 32-year-old and the reluctant hero of one of the club's hoariest anecdotes. One summer morning in 1990, he spent a long time mouth-to-mouth resuscitating a man who'd got into trouble far out. Having saved the man's life, Danny went into the clubhouse to eat the packed lunch his mother had prepared. He unwrapped tongue sandwiches. "And I was that bloody hungry, I ate 'em."

In Australia, the headquarters of surf life saving clubs tend to include squash courts and parquet-floored ballrooms with chandeliers. The one at Perranporth resembles a scout hut; there's a small, crammed trophy cabinet, and many photographs of lifesavers down the ages gazing at black-and-white seas.

Fiddling with a short-wave radio was Stephen Duckworth, a club member, and one of eight professional council lifeguards who'll be patrolling the bay this season. He and his colleagues will be assisted at weekends by rotating pairs of non-professional club members. Stephen first heard the call of the sea as a schoolboy; as he was then living in Crewe, it must have been pretty loud. "I'd come here surfing as a teenager," he recalls, "and my mates would always want to get into the pub, but I just wanted to keep riding those waves. The idea that I'd end up as head lifeguard with Carrick District Council - it would never have entered my head."

Meanwhile, half a mile away in a seafront hotel, Doreen Lawrence was conducting a lifesaving class for the club's "nippers" (the eight-to-11 category). Doreen, a pink-skinned, bright-eyed woman in her fifties, is at the hub of Perranporth life. She's a parish councillor, runs the tourist office, and is to be seen swimming in the sea in all but the coldest months of the year. She's been a symbolic matriarch to the club for the past 11 years, and most members have learned their resuscitation skills from her. Her charges sat in not very orderly rows on the floor, wearing the black- and-yellow cap which, throughout the world, indicates internal surf club business (red and yellow are the colours worn on patrol). "When is the only time we go into a rip current?" demanded Doreen. "When we're rescuing someone 'cos it takes us out to them faster," came the chorused answer. Doreen would teach the children mouth-to- mouth resuscitation for their lifesaving bronze; then they might earn an advanced qualification, using the club's pounds 1,700 dummy, which is bristling with gauges to indicate pulse and heartbeat and the pressure of a hit on the ribcage.

Doreen pointed at me. "There's a man here," she said sternly. "He wants to ask you a question." I asked who watched Baywatch. A small riot followed. They all watched Baywatch all the time. And what did they think of it? "Rubbish!" they shouted, with absolute unanimity. "Our club is better than Baywatch," said one little girl to emphatic nods.

As the nippers' class was ending, a club meeting was beginning. At 8pm, heedless of a stunning sunset, wetsuit-clad club members were scattered among the waves, frolicking far out with their rescue boards. Every few minutes a swimmer would return to the clubhouse, glistening and with shining eyes. "Lovely!" shouted someone as he strode to the showers.

Of the club's 200 members, about 40 were present. There were a handful of women, most of them weight training in a club annexe. The women play supporting roles - first aid, club management - lacking the brute strength needed to manhandle unconscious bodies.

The atmosphere was unselfconscious and fun rather than narcissistic or erotic. The club members seemed a stable, monogamous lot, good-looking in a muted, English way; only the Youth Development Officer, Simon Lawrence (son of Doreen), fitted the Baywatch paradigm, with his pop star's blond hair. There were a couple of prospective new members, awkward in anoraks. The club is a magnet to many of the town's youngsters, but is rejected by the bad lot who loiter next to the boating lake and disdain it as a goody-goody enterprise.

At the close of the meeting, members decamped 200 yards across the beach to a bar called the Watering Hole. I accompanied Peter Gaisford, club member and chairman of the Surf Life Saving Association of Britain. He told me he resented the way that the professional lifeguard service at Perranporth, and all around the country, was dependent on the facilities and support of amateur clubs. The amount put in by local councils is always dwarfed by the clubs' private fundraising. "The reason it's not taken seriously here is that there isn't even one major city on the sea." He acknowledged, though, that the number of Britons involved in surf lifesaving - about 3,000 - has increased rapidly in the past few years. There's even a club for London-bound lifesavers who are poignantly compelled to train in the Serpentine.

Gaisford attributes this expansion to the increasing sophistication of wetsuits, which make it possible to swim in the sea all year round, and, yes, to Baywatch. "It's brought the lifeguard into the front room."

The Watering Hole, built from driftwood and dominated by a huge photograph of a surfer, is owned by Bob Jobe who, along with Mick Abrams, was a lifeguard in the early Seventies. Both had brought several bodies out of the sea, but always in "red flag situations" - that is, the victims had disobeyed a swimming ban. No life has been lost off Perranporth within patrol hours and within a designated swimming area.

Emboldened by the glint in their eyes, I asked, frankly, whether they'd pulled many birds. They were taken aback, possibly offended. "You were too busy," said Mick. "You can always tell a lifeguard by the way he's looking over your shoulder all the time. You're constantly watching the sea. Even now, I'll walk along the beach, and I'll think, there's a rip there, there's a rip there... I'd better go before I have to rescue someone."

In 1960, Alan Homes - the only smoker in the bar - won the Queen's Award for gallantry for rescuing an unconscious woman to whom a seven-year-old boy was clinging. Twenty years later the boy - now a man - approached Alan on the beach. What did he say? I wondered. Alan shrugged, took a puff on his little cigar. "He said...y'know...thank you." You have to prise every detail of a rescue out of the Perranporth men. I asked Danny Miners - the tongue-sandwich eater - to elaborate on his celebrated rescue, and he politely clammed up. "There were a lot of diced carrots and chips coming up," he reflected. "It was all no glory stuff." He added, though, that the rescuee is now "high up in St John's Ambulance. He does Manchester United every other week, I think."

Alongside Danny was his father, Eric, and his uncle Trevor, who lifeguarded in the Fifties, when rescues were performed without the aid of boards, surf skis or boats. They simply swam out attached to a line and a big reel, expertly controlled by a fellow lifeguard. In those days, surfboards were humble plywood planks, and surfing was just something you did if you lived by the sea.

I asked Eric and Trevor whether they had ever seen Baywatch, and they started wheezy, watery-eyed laughs. After ten seconds or so, I tried again. Could I take it that they had? Their paroxysms only increased. I was at a loss as to what to do, but then I noticed that Eric, in the midst of his mirth, was nodding at me.

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