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Sun, sea, sand... and safety

PUBLISHED: 12:40 24 August 2009 | UPDATED: 14:50 03 July 2010

It's the dark side of a bright summer in East Anglia; two drownings in a fortnight with emergency services stretched to the limit by countless more incidents - mostly avoidable.

It's the dark side of a bright summer in East Anglia; two drownings in a fortnight with emergency services stretched to the limit by countless more incidents - mostly avoidable. Reporter Stephen Pullinger joined Gorleston's RNLI lifeguards for another day on the front line on Friday.

IT'S 12.30pm and with the mercury soaring to 27C there are already more than 500 people on Gorleston beach with another 70 in the water, which has reached a warm 19C.

From the perfect vantage point of the lifeguards' hut on the sand, Dan Griffin calmly sweeps the apparent chaos with his glasses. “It's less busy than yesterday when we had 3,000 on the beach and 300 in the water,” he said.

However, his laid-back demeanour quickly shifts gear when senior lifeguard Daniel Buck, patrolling the shoreline, radios him with instructions to fly the orange windsock above the hut because the strengthening breeze is turning from south to south-westerly.

“Oh, how I love an offshore wind,” said Dan ironically, knowing it spells the deadly danger of blowing inflatable dinghies out to sea.

Speaking with vivid memories of one Sunday earlier this month when they had to dissuade a succession of youngsters from dragging inflatables - lemming-like - down to the water, he said: “People even argue with you when you point to the windsock and tell them they can't use their dinghies.

“Some of them can't even swim well, but they think they are safe in the dinghies, which in reality are just toys.

“Even without an offshore wind, it's not really advisable to bring dinghies to the beach. We don't have as many hazards here as some other parts of the coastline, like Cornwall for instance, but there are still hidden dangers,” he said, pointing to the eddying currents behind the breakwater, the scene of several rescues in recent summers.

Down at the water's edge, Daniel, sporting the kind of tan you would expect to find in Australia, where he will actually be this winter, patrolling beaches around Melbourne, is philosophical about the apparent stupidity.

While locals were getting used to what the windsock meant, and the red and orange flags that marked the lifeguard-patrolled part of the beach, a lot of holidaymakers at the beach from further away were still ignorant.

“There are clear signs up explaining it, but the kids are probably eager to get on the beach, so they just rush on,” he said.

Within minutes of the windsock being raised on Thursday, Daniel is blowing his whistle and dashing into the water to talk to two lads - about 12 and with no close parental supervision - bobbing up and down in a dinghy. They come out with no protest and Daniel says they admitted they had seen the windsock go up.

Almost immediately, he intercepts a toddler, dragging an inflatable to the water's edge with his mother, who admits she did not know what the windsock meant.

Meanwhile, his colleague Oli Lee dashes up the beach to where another youngster has taken to the water in an inflatable outside the lifeguard-patrolled section.

“You have to reach them before they get out of their depth as they can be blown out to sea so quickly,” said Daniel.

He stressed that while the number of full-scale emergencies involving lifeboats and rescue helicopters was limited, that was only because of their constant vigilance in stopping people entering the water.

The other potentially serious hazard on a crowded beach (four cases at Gorleston in the past week) was created by parents losing their children near the water's edge.

Dan said: “We even give out wristbands for youngsters, which can have their parents' mobile phone number written on them.

“The other day one father insisted they didn't need a wristband because they did not lose their children, but half an hour later they came over to us to report one of their children missing.”

In the last week, lifeguards carried out about 250 preventative actions, such as telling people not to go out on inflatables, on the region's beaches.

Daniel Reid went missing while swimming off Yarmouth beach earlier this month. The body of the 25-year-old has yet to be found. A 10-year-old girl also died while swimming at Clacton, Essex.

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