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Newspapers & Mags
Alf’s work appears regularly in most UK national broadsheets and a wide variety of magazines in Britain and abroad, including Conde Nast Traveller, Esquire, Time Out, Highlife (British Airways in-flight mag), Ski & Board, Fall Line magazine and French magazine.
He is also gear review editor for Adventure Traveller and Snow magazines
Most of his articles focus on adventure sports and adventure travel, especially surfing, skiing and mountain biking. He has fallen down or off something in more than forty countries around the world, although his ‘specialist’ areas are Wales, SW France, the French Alps and French Pyrenees, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.
Here’s a recent example from The Times
WORKING ON WATER – Alf Alderson
Tenby’s South Beach on a sunny midsummer day presents the classic British beach scene – kids building sandcastles, teenagers floundering around in the waves on boogie boards, adults flicking through the latest holiday read – and professional lifeguards keeping a close eye over it all.
But three of their number, Adam Pitman, 20, Jon Johnston, 23 and Coral Lewis, 20 have had to had to take a break from the Atlantic waves for the airwaves over the last few days after gaining a brief moment of national fame when they rescued a 40-strong group of visitors last Saturday which had ignored safety notices and almost drowned on an unstable sand bank just off the beach.
This left a still busy beach manned by their ‘stand-ins’, amongst them was Jeff Rogers, the seasonal lifeguard supervisor who pointed out that “South Beach is an amazingly safe beach but last Saturday’s incident just goes to show that even the safest beach can be dangerous if you don’t know it well and don’t follow safety advice. It’s also reassuring for the public to see how quickly and effectively our guys respond when an emergency does occur”.
I spoke to Jon Johnston as he drove back down the M4 to Wales after being interviewed at the BBBC studios in London. “It’s been great publicity for us and a good opportunity to raise the profile of the RNLI beach lifeguards’ work,” he remarked. “But to be honest I’d rather be working on the beach”.
And he wasn’t saying this because the relaxed beach lifestyle is more appealing than being grilled on breakfast TV, for what was once seen as a pretty cool and laid back summer job has now become a serious profession. Indeed, for some lifeguards their ‘summer job’ has become a career, with a number of British lifeguards heading out to work in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand when the season ends here – Tom Burgess of Swansea, for instance, has done eleven straight seasons as a beach lifeguard alternating between the UK and overseas.
Eleven seasons of hanging out on the beach, chatting up the chicks and getting a nice tan – not bad work if you can get it, hey? But the reality is all a far cry from the traditional sun, surf and sex image of a lifeguard’s daily grind.
Since 2001 the RNLI has gradually taken over beach lifeguarding in the UK at an annual cost of £8 million – and they demand a very high level of competence and fitness from their employees. Neil Thomas, Divisional Lifeguard Manager for the RNLI’s Western Region, says that applicants must already have a professional lifeguard qualification before they can even hope to be considered for the RNLI’s two-week beach lifeguard induction course.
The course qualifies them as fully trained first responders with the skills to use defibrillators, administer oxygen therapy, recognise and treat spinal injuries and prioritise responses to medical emergencies – something akin to ski patrollers at mountain resorts.
A high level of fitness is also essential – a lifeguard must be able to swim 400 metres in less than 7.5 minutes, swim 25-metres underwater followed by 25-metres on the surface in not more than 50 seconds and sprint 200-metres on the beach in less than 40 seconds (not as easy as it sounds in soft sand). And this test is held every month throughout the summer along with strenous daily and weekly training sessions
“It’s definitely done for love and not money,” says Neil Thomas. “Beach cleaners can earn more than a lifeguard and obviously the job carries a massive amount of responsibility with it”. Lifeguards receive their salary from their regional county council whilst the RNLI provides all the training and equipment at a cost of £1000 per year per lifeguard.
This arrangement is more pragmatic than it sounds since a beach won’t get a Blue Flag award if it isn’t patrolled by lifeguards, and a beach without lifeguards attracts far fewer tourists so councils have a vested interest in employing lifeguards at their beaches.
Most patrolled beaches will have one senior lifeguard and one or two junior lifeguards along with a phalanx of volunteers who undergo the same fitness training and are often former lifeguards who want to remain involved with the surf life saving scene in their spare time.
I was a voluntary lifeguard at Porthmawr Surf Lifesaving Club at Whitesands Beach in Pembrokeshire in the 80s, but when I go back there now I can see straight away that it’s a for more professional operation than it was 20 years ago. Just looking at the equipment the guys on the beach are using, from liveried 4WD vehicles and jet skis to smart uniforms and a fully kitted out emergency room impresses me and I’m sure must instil a great deal of confidence in the public.
Back in the 80s those of us providing ‘back up’ as volunteers were often there because the lifeguard hut was a cool place to hang out after surfing as much as to assist those in distress, and our training was a far cry from that of today’s lifeguards (I distinctly remember failing to turn up for fitness tests on more than one occasion but still being allowed to wander up and down the beach blowing my whistle and yelling to bemused tourist to “Bathe between the flags!”).
I became aware of just how much more demanding the job is these days when I popped down to Whitesands on a busy July Monday. An ambulance was leaving the car park as I arrived, and senior lifeguard Steve Evans told me it had just picked up an unfortunate visitor who had snapped their Achilles tendon.
Steve was in charge of a beach on which hundreds of tourists were being bashed about by a solid Atlantic swell, twisting their ankles on rocks and burning their shoulders in the sun, all hazards that he and his team could deal with confidently and professionally should the need arise.
“We had five rescues yesterday,” the affable 23-year-old informed me, “And in between we were busy with everything from advice on where to surf safely to where to find the public toilets”. Alongside Steve was Jack Middleton, 19, whose father Andy had been a senior lifeguard when I was hanging out here back in the day – evidence of the generational aspect of the job. It’s quite common for sons and daughters to follow their parents into the vocation, and there’s very much a family feel about any lifeguard hut when its members gather together.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Cornwall, which has been at the forefront of the British surf lifesaving scene since South African and Australian lifeguards were employed to patrol the beaches around Newquay in the 1960s (although perhaps surprisingly the first surf lifesaving club in Britain was formed in Brighton in 1954). At beaches like Chapel Porth, just south of Newquay, you may find three or four generations of the same family involved with the surf lifesaving and surfing scene.
The Cornish surf was a particular attraction for southern hemisphere lifeguards, who are generally credited with having introduced surfing to the UK in the 1960s. Roger Mansfield, author of the recently published book ‘The Surfing Tribe’, an in-depth history of wave riding in Britain, describes how the country’s first surfers were “Hidden inside the ranks of these new and enthusiastic surf lifesavers. Paradoxically, the ‘alternative’ subculture of surfing grew from a conventional beach culture of safe practice. Through their direct links and personal contacts with either Australian or South African clubs, British clubs fostered visits in both directions and information and ideas started to flow.
“The tradition of ‘surf-skis’ as rescue vehicles in the surf was adopted and broad hollow wooden boards were built from southern hemisphere designs by Cornish lifesavers. The same happened with the 14-foot racing paddleboards that were used for both competition and rescues, with the temptation to stand up on them and ride the waves to shore being too much for many lifesavers. In fact my own surf mentor Bill Bailey developed the first fibreglass surfboards in Newquay in the 60s as lifesaving aids rather than instruments of fun”.
Surfing and surf lifesaving did diverge to some extent in the 70s and 80s when the free spirited and rebellious aspect of surfing rested somewhat uneasily alongside the more regimented and competition-oriented surf lifesaving movement, but there has always been an unavoidable link of some sort between the two activities – in my own experience, even when we were being young ‘surf rebels’ in the 80s we would obviously go to the aid of anyone we may see in trouble whilst we were surfing, whilst the lifeguards would soon arrive out on paddle boards to provide professional care and assistance.
We were all using pretty much the same craft in the waves, some of us for pleasure, others as a rescue device and since the lifeguards with whom we were bobbing around in the waves were invariably friends with whom we also surfed, drank and partied surf lifesaving and surfing couldn’t help but remain inextricably linked.
The days of surfing being seen as the lifestyle of choice for dudes, druggies and drop-outs are perhaps finally coming to a close, as so too is the image of beach lifeguards as sun tanned Lotharios with a surfboard under one arm and a girl under the other.
And when you think about it, whilst the image may not be quite so cool who would you rather have coming to your aid as the waves close over your head – the deadhead surf dude or the professional from the RNLI?
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