Baywatch, Cornwall

We may be thousands of miles from California, but in Britain's seaside resorts this summer, highly-trained lifeguards are taking their cue from David Hasselhoff. Stuart Husband joins the beach patrol
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The Independent Online

Bobby Renaud is keeping a watchful eye. "There are some body-boarders out there who look like they're about to drift over to the bathers' area," he announces, in his laid-back South African drawl. "I'll get one of my guys to go out there on a board and move them over. Plus, we've had a lost child and a jellyfish alert." He grins. "Typical afternoon on the beach."

Renaud is the area manager for north Cornwall's RNLI beach lifeguards. A few days ago they pulled 31 waterlogged surfers, boarders and bathers out of a rip current that had dragged them under on Perranporth beach, just down the coast from here.

"We spotted what was coming and were able to move in and get them out fast," says Renaud, as he continues to scan the bathers' area for signs of "surf creep" from the boarders. "But people seem to think that one beach is pretty much like any other. They don't understand that they all have their own personality quirks and different dangers." He pauses as a shrieking girl in a bikini thrashes into the shallows. "They're also pretty world-class at ignoring warning signs. That's why, in my opinion at least, a lifeguard presence is kind of essential."

It sounds eminently reasonable: after all, the death of a three-year-old girl near Hayle in Cornwall over the weekend (out of Renaud's remit), who suffocated when her 5ft-deep sand-pit collapsed on top of her, is just the latest in a string of seasonal disaster stories. But it doesn't seem to be an opinion that's universally shared. "At the moment, there's no statutory requirement for anyone to provide lifeguards on holiday beaches," says Michael Vlasto, operations director for the RNLI. "So some councils might provide their own, others get our service in, or some private beach owners might not bother at all. There are seven different government departments involved in water safety, and we're trying to get some kind of centralised body set up." He sighs. "In the meantime, we're happy to provide a premium service when we're asked to."

The figures, according to Vlasto, speak for themselves. The RNLI has been operating a lifeguard service for four years, patrolling between Easter and the end of September. There have been 3,500 recorded incidents so far this season: "That ranges from 24 lives saved down to about 2,500 minor first aids," says Vlasto. The RNLI currently deploys 400 lifeguards on 59 beaches, the vast majority of which are in the South-west, at a cost of nearly £3m per season. "A good beach lifeguard should never get wet," says Vlasto. "But, of course, you're dealing with the public here. So sod's law prevails."

The vast majority of lifeguards are volunteers. "They have to pass a range of qualifications," says Vlasto, "from life-saving techniques to conflict resolution and beach management. But the last time I walked a beach with them, half seemed to be studying oceanography at Plymouth University, while the other half were sun-seekers from Australia or South Africa who summered here and went back home in winter."

Renaud himself is a self-confessed beach junkie - "I can't imagine a day when I won't step on some sand or head out on a board" - but he's at pains to point out that he and his team take their jobs extremely seriously. Sure, Ryan from Queensland or Ross from Padstow - with their trim physiques, ruddy tans, bleached hair and standard-issue Quicksilver sunglasses - may look like extras from Surf Dude Central Casting, but Britain's beaches are still a long way from Baywatch.

"I can't pretend that people don't bring that series up from time to time," says Renaud. And, he concedes, the lifeguards enjoy a certain celebrity in these parts: "I mean, if we go out, people know who we are. It's a fairly parochial place. But it's not like we're mobbed or anything. The fact is that most of what we do shades from the kind of mundane into edgier stuff. A lot of people crowd on to these beaches at the height of the season, and it can set off tensions. If someone loses their child, they're right on to us: 'Lifeguard, where's my kid?'"

As if on cue, a distressed woman rushes over to demand just that; a two-man search vehicle is dispatched (her daughter is found almost immediately, 100 yards away from the family windbreak). Meanwhile, Dave (trim physique, ruddy tan, bleached hair) paddles out on an RNLI surfboard to ensure that the surf/bathe demarcation line is observed. A man is carried off the beach to receive first aid for a weaver fish sting (these sand-coloured creatures, which lurk in the shallows, deliver a leg-numbing jab of venom more debilitating than that of any jellyfish).

And then we witness some of that famous conflict resolution. A man in a straw hat canters up to inform Renaud, breathlessly, that his family is being threatened by "some nutter with a spade". Renaud heads off to investigate, and we find a tense stand-off. A boy is waving his spade at a rotund man in board-shorts; behind the boy is a fabulously complex system of earthworks and dykes that he's obviously spent all day constructing, and wants to keep safe from the man's children. The two of them are yelling at each other. Renaud moves in to calm things down. He talks to the boy, who is persuaded to retire to his moat and continue tunnelling. He talks to the man, who throws his hands up in a "what can you do?" gesture. He talks to the boy's mother, who is standing off to the side looking petrified. Situation defused, we leave the scene. So what did Renaud do there? "Simple," he says. "I just told everyone they were in the right."

We move on to Constantine beach, round the next headland. It's a huge crescent shape, and the ebb tide has revealed a series of "in-shore holes" - channels in the sand that turn into fast-flowing cross-currents when the tide comes in, the same rip currents that almost did for the punters on Perranporth last week. "We pulled a few out of here just a few days ago," says Renaud, fretfully eyeing a pair of body-boarders surfing the advancing waves, well outside the safe bathing zone.

"The fact is," says his colleague Ross, "that the beaches are generally getting busier - a few years ago most people wouldn't have ventured down here. Now, you've got surfers, boarders and windsurfers as well as bathers, and a lot of them just go blithely into the water without thinking."

"Some people buy a boogie board and think they've become king of the sea," chimes in Renaud. "And then the strap snaps and they're floundering. And what do they do? Throw the board away. The one thing they could cling to..." He raises his eyebrows.

A woman comes up to Ross. "Silly question," she says, "but is the tide going in or out?" "Out," says Ross. "But it's on the turn." "And it's not a silly question at all," says Renaud with satisfaction. "It's an eminently sensible one."

Our final port of call is Treyarnon beach - another idyllic-looking sandy cove - where Renaud greets Steve, Joel and Adam (trim physiques, ruddy tans, etc). "One lost child and one weaver sting," reports Steve. The three are perched in a hut high on the cliff; a picture of David Hasselhoff takes pride of place on the wall. The three draw lots to decide who'll go down and patrol the surfers; they're tabulating near-misses between boards and bathers. They're also getting constant updates on the cricket score.

"Today's a perspiration day rather than an inspiration day," ventures Joel, a laconic Australian. "Which is good, of course," he adds quickly. '"That no one's getting drowned, I mean."

"You should have been around two days ago," says Adam, watching a couple of pit-bulls savaging each other on the beach through his binoculars. "We had a rip current come in from the left, people getting stranded on the rocks..." "Oh yeah, that was a good day," says Joel. "Well, er, a busy day, is what I mean."

The lifeguards generally leave the beach at about six, but tonight Renaud decides to deploy them for a while longer; the tide is coming in, and there are still plenty of people in the water. "This job never really stops, at least not for me," he says, as we drive back up the beach. "Even when I'm off duty, I'm always keeping an eye out. You know another good reason to have lifeguards around?" he asks. "No one knows more about the beaches than we do. We spend all our time on them. We're like their unofficial custodians. We can pick up changing patterns in weather and waves and wildlife. So we can save lives and hopefully do our bit for the planet, too." (The fact that Renaud is driving a huge RNLI-issue 4x4 while he's saying this in no way compromises the sincerity of his sentiments.)

People are drifting off the beach, their eyes puffy, their backs red and blotchy, their kids sand-strewn. They may not appreciate it, and some of them may not even realise it until the next time a mass rescue makes the news, but thanks to Renaud & co, they've lived to bathe, board, burn, and bicker another day.