What I Learned From Training As A Lifeguard
The Debrief: ‘I am not 17, I am not looking for a “chill” summer job, but becoming a lifeguard at 32 has taught me a few things not covered in the National Pool Lifeguard Qualification exam.’
I have become a lifeguard at the age of 32.
That’s right - just as the first flush of grey pubes start to whisper through my knickers and I become the proud owner of my own oven, I find myself in a hot, potato-smelling classroom above the London Student Union, learning how to blow a whistle, surrounded by 19-year-olds looking for a ‘chill’ summer job.
The reason for this small diversion in my literary (ho ho) career is two-fold. Firstly, as all freelancers know, a flexible paying job can be a wonderful thing. But perhaps the greater reason is that, at the moment, outdoor swimming is about the only thing keeping me from going to live in a hole. It is my salvation, my exertion, my exultation, my flotation. As Theresa May sells the NHS off for short term profit, slashes public service funding and rips us out of Europe like a finger out of a bleeding socket, I find myself more and more seeking the company of like-minded women, water and the outdoors.
So, when one of the lifeguards at the women’s ponds on Hampstead Heath asked me if I might be interested in training up to work there as a casual lifeguard, I all but got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. To stand on that deck, to feed those ducklings, to protect those wonderful women - it was a dream come true.
You, perhaps, might be wondering what training to be a lifeguard actually involves. So, in the words of The Jungle Book’s King Louie, allow me to elucidate that for you. There were about 12 people on my week-long course, which took place every day, Monday-to-Friday, from 8am - 5.30pm. We were told to wear something ‘you can roll around in’, by our lovely instructor Ray Papps: ‘That means no skirts, boys, because it will all hang out’. I liked Ray a lot. There were slightly more men on the course - including a middle-aged former-member of the Iraqi National Water Polo Team and a 17-year-old who still lived with his mum - and a lot of very strong swimmers.
Lifeguard training is basically made up of three parts: learning how to safely manage a swimming pool, practical skills and First Aid. We spent the morning on the former, looking at slides, reading through our textbook and asking Ray questions about risk assessment or health and safety law or how best to stop kids from breaking their legs; two hours before lunch in the pool practising timed swims or picking bodies up from the bottom or different ways of gripping and towing a casualty; and the whole afternoon was taken up with first aid.
Which is how I found myself, on one of the warmest days of the season, feeling sticky and somewhat hormonal, smelling slightly of chlorine, crouching over a plastic medical model, learning how to give CPR to a child. Did you know that to effectively administer CPR you should be pushing down at least 5cm? If it’s a child, you should push down a third of the way to the ground from their chest? In short, unless you’re doing it really fucking hard, it’s not going to work. I also learned how to tie a sling, what to do if someone is having an asthma attack, how to help someone going into shock, how to bandage a wound with a chunk of glass sticking out, how to spot if someone’s having a stroke, what to do if you discover someone unconscious in the water and lots, lots more. I cannot urge you strongly enough to get some first aid training. Do it now. Do it right now. It may well be the most important thing you ever learn. And, at the moment, we all need to do what we can to save each other.
We also learned what to do in the event of ‘urine, blood, faeces or other fluids’ being discovered in the water, what to do if someone reports a bomb threat, what to do if there’s a lightning storm when people are swimming outdoors, how to pull someone safely out of the water, how to rescue someone with a suspected spinal injury, how to use a defibrilator, how long you should work before having a break, what different whistle codes mean, how to communicate using just hand signals and why it’s a bad idea to blow into someone’s mouth without holding their nose first (snot all over your face, my friends). I also ate a lot of student union baked potatoes and drank some spectacularly shit tea.
I suffered the indignity of towing a fully-grown man across a pool at the speed of a duck, while wearing shorts and t-shirt over my swimming costume like an 8-year-old in PE. I threw torpedo buoys into the water like an amateur javelin athlete. I put a wet 20-year-old archeology student into the recovery position and, on one particularly memorable day, brushed my nipple against a particularly rough bit of tiling.
Of course, I was one of the oldest there. I am not 17, I am not looking for a ‘chill’ summer job, I am not particularly worried about my tan lines or having a fling with a Pamela Anderson lookalike. But becoming a lifeguard at 32 has taught me a few things not covered in the National Pool Lifeguard Qualification exam. Namely, that if you want to feel safe in the world, learn how to look after others. If you want to find some peace in the dust and sweat of daily life, slip into your nearest safe bit of open water. If you see danger, dirt, despair or disagreement then it is up to you to try and fix it - you can’t rely on someone else to do it instead. You really aren’t ever too old, too arrogant, too comfortable or too clever to learn new things. And, finally, if you want the weight of the world to hang a little lighter, then get in the water. I might even be there, perhaps, to keep you safe.
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