Page last updated at 17:11 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 18:11 UK

Reality behind 'beach bum' image

by Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West

Beach lifeguards
The RNLI says surf lifeguards can make a career out of the job

How do you fancy a job that pays you to work on the West Country's beaches, with a decent tan almost guaranteed?

That is the tempting offer the RNLI is making as it faces a shortfall of 258 lifeguards in the region.

The number of beaches it covers has increased by 22, while some of its regular staff have left.

But if you are expecting the life of a beach bum with some money thrown in, you may well be disappointed.

One of those left to fill the staffing gap is Craig Bowley, RNLI lifeguard supervisor at Polzeath who told BBC News what it takes to be a lifeguard.

Mr Bowley, 33, started lifeguarding as a "grommet", or young surfer on the beaches near his home town of Scotburgh in South Africa.

Craig Bowley
You cannot go from zero to hero
Craig Bowley

"It was a natural progression to being a lifeguard," he said.

"I was always surfing and it was a good job to have in the school holidays."

He took a professional qualification at the age of 17 in Durban where he continued lifeguarding for four years, often working 12 hour shifts from six in the morning.

The local authorities offered medical insurance and also helped with accommodation.

"Lifeguarding in South Africa is an all-year-round job," said Mr Bowley.

"The water only goes down to 23C, so you're in shorts all the time."

He said the image of lifeguards in the UK, where he has worked for nine years, was still of beach bums without qualifications.

But the increasing interest in surfing - membership of the British Surfing Association, the sport's governing body has risen 400% to 10,000 in the past five years - has led to a demand for lifesavers.

'Hard work'

Local authorities in the South West have been handing over responsibility for safety on the beaches to the RNLI, which demands that lifesavers have been trained to a Surf Life Saving Association of Great Britain (SLSGB) award.

The RNLI will then further train lifeguards, with several years of practice needed to operate boats.

"It also helps if you have been surfing for a few years," said Mr Bowley.

"We get people coming down from London who have never been in a riptide and that experience of actually being out there and knowing how to surf safely is what we are looking for most.

"You cannot go from zero to hero."

He added: "The image of beach lifeguards in this country is still of surf bums.

"You have to work hard, but is a professional job with a career for those who want it.

"I've lost count of the number of resuscitations I have made, but the reward is the satisfaction you get from saving somebody's life."

The SLSGB's qualification is also recognised by the International Lifesaving Federation so there are plenty of opportunities to work in less chilly climes.

The RNLI itself offers an annual exchange scheme with lifeguards from New Zealand and Australia swapping places with counterparts in the UK.

There is also the chance to take part in the Surf Lifesaving World Championships, which will be in Cornwall in 2010.

And of course, there are the attractions of being on some of the best beaches in the country.

"It's beautiful here," said Mr Bowley.

"If you are a lifeguard it's the best place to be."

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