Country needs more lifeguards, on duty for longer periods

It has taken a miracle at sea in unseasonably warm weather for the debate over how to replace Portugal’s ‘last century’ approach to beach surveillance with a model that can actually save lives.

This won’t be an easy task. Right now, the country has a system that “isn’t working” in that it isn’t even training-up enough young people to be lifeguards.

Reports pre-Easter warned that recruitment this year will have to look to ‘importing’ lifeguards from Brazil and Argentina.

But that will only tick one of the boxes. The main problem is the antiquated ‘bathing season’ – a four-month window that has remained unchanged as the world’s weather warms up dramatically.

Traditionally, lifeguards ‘arrive’ on the nation’s beaches in June and leave at the end of September.

Dismal tragedies in recent years falling in October have seen some beach concessions keep lifeguards on until October 15 – but this is still an exception, more common in the south than anywhere else.

The reality, however, is that hundreds of thousands of people flock to water (both sea and river beaches) from as early as April (this year being an easy example).

Already this year the country has witnessed tragedies – one of them even more agonising for the fact that up until time of writing a body had still not been found.

And this latter case – a drowning on the south coast, between the beaches of Ingrina and Barranco – throws up another ‘issue’ with traditional lifeguarding rules: lifeguards clock on at 9am and clock off at 7pm: people, however, tend to remain in the water in hot weather until well past 8pm.

This is what happened in this tragedy: a young man from Chicago, “full of life and energy”, entered the sea sometime after 7pm with a plan to scale the cliffs leading down to it. When he found this impossible, due to the swell and currents, he trod water for some considerable time as his female companion desperately tried to get help.

Even if Ingrina beach had been ‘supervised’ (which it was not), the lifeguards would have left for the day.

Help would not have been easily at hand – and as things worked out, the worst happened.

Why is the system so full of holes? That is much easier to answer: lifeguards are the responsibility of beach concessions. In other words, it is the businesses who rely on tourism who pay them, not the State.


This week, in the Algarve – where a miracle happened at sea that was so uplifting it warmed the battered national psyche – Bloco de Esquerda took the bull by the horns and said the obvious: it is time for the Ministries of Defence, Internal Administration and Environment and Climate Action to take the necessary measures to ensure people’s safety.

“It is urgent to extend the surveillance period of Algarve beaches, namely by recruiting a corps of lifeguards to work within the national lifeboat rescue institute.

 “It is urgent to increase the surveillance period on beaches, and the resources, ensuring the presence of lifeguards over longer periods in order to reduce the number of accidents”.

Bloco de Esquerda Algarve highlights how only 25 of the region’s beaches have lifeguards from May 15 (that’s nearly a month away); another 60 start being supervised from June 1, until (most of them) September 30, even though there are at least 107 popular coastal beaches (and this doesn’t include so-called ‘river beaches’ on both south and west coasts).

With weekend temperatures nudging the 30ºC recently, the nation’s beaches remain hugely vulnerable.

Yes, authorities have sent out alerts, warning of currents, of ‘winter seas’, of dangers. But wouldn’t it make sense to tackle the obvious: the lack of strong young people trained at beach rescues?

Faro paediatrician Elsa Rocha certainly seems to think so. Elsa Rocha is one of a number of health professionals who had the joy this week of experiencing Portugal’s ‘miracle at sea’ up close.

It was her department that received an ‘extremely debilitated’ heroine on Sunday night – 17-year-old Érica Vicente who had been swept out to sea 24 hours earlier as she stood on a paddleboard in her bikini.

For 21 hours, the youngster was at the mercy of the wind and the sea as search and rescue craft were scrambled, to very little effect.

By the time ‘means’ arrived at Praia do Coelho, Vila Real de Santo António, Érica (or Kika as she is known by her family and friends) had disappeared from sight.

Even worse, light was fading and there was no moon.

An Air Force helicopter was also involved, but with no visibility, everyone was forced to ‘hope for the morning’.

What seems to have happened is that the search area was based on ‘calculations’ that didn’t really add up to the speed a light board with a young person on it would be travelling.

Luckily, Kika had angels with her: she travelled around 46 kms from land, to be spied by a massive cargo ship awaiting clearance to enter Moroccan waters, and dock in Tangier.

By this time, she was in a state of “elevated hypothermia”, suffering first degree burns from exposure to the sun, and beyond exhaustion. But she still managed to cling on to her oar (as she explained later, she thought she would need it if she came across whales or sharks).

The rest is a heartwarming blur. The crew of MSC Reef radioed to the shore; warmed her up; got her into dry clothes; the ship’s nurse monitored all her vital signs, made sure she was rehydrated. The Air Force helicopter arrived; Kika was winched aboard … and safely delivered on a stretcher to the expertise of Faro hospital.

“She’s a warrior; an absolute heroine,” said paediatric director Elsa Rocha. But there are many lessons to be learnt from this rare miracle that could so easily have gone the other way.

First, in Elsa Rocha’s opinion, no-one should practice watersports without a lifejacket (Kika did not have one) – and, ideally, they should carry a mobile phone.

But more importantly: “We have to think about extending the bathing season” – so that lifeguards become a much more common presence on the nation’s beaches – “It could make the difference for all of us,” said the clinician, who works on various levels to promote child safety.

By ‘extending’ the bathing season, hopes are that authorities will look at lifeguarding timetables, as well as the months involved – because if timetables stay as they are today, Kika would still have been ‘on her own’ on that beach last Saturday: she went into the water after 8pm.

By Natasha Donn
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