Nation’s beaches still short of around 1,000 lifeguards

Intake from Argentina and Brazil fails to make up shortfall

In spite of all the warnings, lamentations and ‘clever ideas’, Portugal is still on track to hit the summer bathing season with a serious shortage of qualified lifeguards.

News over Easter that authorities would be ‘recruiting’ these young people whose job it is to watch over beachgoers’ safety from Argentina and Brazil – on much more favourable terms than those normally offered national citizens – appears not to have ticked all the boxes.

Early this month, the Portuguese federation of lifeguards was predicting a shortfall of up to 2,000 ‘nadadores salvadores’ this year. That number now seems more likely to be around 1,000 – but it is still far from ideal.

How did we get into this situation – bearing in mind, lifeguards can expect to be paid well over the minimum wage for what amounts to four months of beachside vigilance; the job is generally popular with university students who want to earn some money during the long summer break? The answer, it seems, this year at least, is in the quality of the candidates. Half of this year’s 857 prospective newbie lifeguard intake failed their theory exam. It is a failure percentage that almost doubles those of previous years.

Another possible reason is that lifeguarding implies huge responsibilities. A fatality, for example, on one’s watch, can lead to criminal prosecution. Thus even licensed lifeguards (licenses are valid for three years) do not always return to the job every year.

The whole issue of lifeguarding, however, has become a national problem – especially since rising temperatures have seen to it that people start flocking to beaches, and leaping into the sea, long before the traditional ‘summer months’ of June to September.

This year saw throngs on the beaches in March – with the tragic result that there have been five drownings already this year: most of them potentially avoidable had beaches had lifeguard cover.

Ideally, the lifeguard federation would like to see a whole new approach to the sector. It believes lifeguard cover should be much wider than simply the ‘traditional summer months’ – and that lifeguards should be employed by the State, not the beach concessions that only run during the peak holiday season.

“In a normal year, the country needs 5,300 lifeguards in all the ‘concessioned beaches in Portugal”, explain reports.

This year, there are little more than 4,300 – and it is still possible that demand will increase, according to the terms of a dispatch published last Friday in State gazette Diário da República which allows for municipalities and ‘managing entities’ to declare “bathing waters”, meaning non-beach areas where the water is fit for bathing.

Officially, the beach season ‘proper’ starts on June 1, and runs until September 30. Some beaches in the centre and north close during August; others, in the Algarve for example, open a little earlier (from today, May 15) and close a little later (from October 15).

Beaches with lifeguard cover carry ‘flags’ indicating the level of safety for bathing: green being the best conditions, yellow – care needs to be taken; red – no bathing allowed.

Lifeguards tend to come on duty at 9am every day, and go off duty at 7pm.

During those hours dog owners cannot have their animals off the leash.

It has been an argument that holidaymakers are often not aware that lifeguards go off duty at 7pm. Many of them stay on the beaches, and in the water, well past 8pm during July and August. If they get into difficulties, they are often very much ‘on their own’.