Saturday, May 23, 2009

Baywatch, Kochi style!

The lifeguards at Fort Kochi beach are constantly on the alert. Hence, many lives have been saved

Photo: Lifeguards P.A. Rinold, K. Serjan K, C. Mahesan and Suresh Joseph at the Fort Kochi beach

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening, after drinking liquor, Dr. Farooq Usman (name changed), came to the Fort Kochi beach. After standing idly for a while, he walked into the sea and kept moving forward. Soon, Farooq was no longer seen.

Two lifeguards, P.A. Rinold, 37, and Suresh Joseph, 34, of the department of tourism, immediately noticed his disappearance. Armed with a lifebuoy, they ran in and grabbed the doctor.

Farooq shouted, “Allow me to die.”

Rinold said, “If you die we will lose our jobs.”

They brought the struggling doctor back to the shore. Slowly the doctor recovered his composure and said that although he was doing well in his career and had plenty of money he was having problems in the family. “I just can’t manage,” he said.

Rinold questioned his hasty decision to commit suicide. “How will your family survive?” he said. Farooq remained silent. Finally the doctor called his home on Rinold’s mobile phone. Soon, a group of relatives arrived in several cars and took the doctor home.

One month later, Farooq came to the beach with his wife, Ameena. She thanked all the lifeguards and kissed their hands. “You saved my husband’s life,” she said.

Sometime later, Farooq called and asked for Rinold’s bank account number. Later, he deposited Rs 2500 to show his appreciation.

This was one of the rare occasions when a rescued victim actually showed his gratitude. “Most people are in a daze when they are rescued and taken to the hospital,” says Suresh. “They rarely come back later to say thanks.”

Two years ago, the department of tourism hired 24 lifeguards to patrol the beaches in Ernakulam district, like Fort Kochi, Cherai and on Marine Drive.

“This was primarily set up for the safety of the tourists,” says A. Indira, Tourist Information Officer. “The lifeguards have been doing a good job.” So far, no case of drowning has been reported under their watch.

On a windy afternoon, Rinold, Suresh, Serjan K, 31, and C. Mahesan, 38, are watching children and teenagers frolicking in the sea. They are wearing the blue uniform that identifies them as lifeguards. There are a couple of red lifebuoys hanging on a nail near where they sit.

Asked their method of saving people who are drowning, Mahesan says, “I come from the back and hold the hair. If I come from the front, the person will grab me, because he is in a panicky state, and we will both go down.”

So far they have saved about 14 people from sure death and have tackled numerous minor emergencies. Unfortunately, those who come to swim have no idea about how the sea behaves.

“In Fort Kochi the undercurrents are very strong,” says Rinold. “Even good swimmers find it difficult.” Sirjan says the best way to swim is to use the freestyle method. “The kick propels you forward,” he says.

Here is a tip from the lifeguards: whenever you are in trouble you should flow with the current and not against it. Even if the tide seems to take you out to sea, after a while you will be able to turn back and head towards the beach. But it will not be the same area from where you had started swimming.

The job calls for a constant alertness, but it comes at a price. “When we stare at the water for hours together, with the sunlight glinting off it, and because we are lashed by salty winds, we get a headache at the end of the day,” says Mahesan. Now they wear sunshades during the duration of the shift.

It is a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. routine. “The next day we get off,” says Sirjan. There are eight lifeguards at Fort Kochi and they work four to a shift. Most of them are former fishermen, who have lived near the sea all their lives. Hence they have an intuitive understanding of the sea.

“With one glance I know which way the current is moving, and whether it is safe or not,” says Sirjan.

All the lifeguards say they love their job, but there are small hindrances. There is no proper place to sit. “We have tied these wooden logs together to make a bench,” says Rinold. “A lifeguard tower would be ideal.”

Since there are no toilet facilities, when they save somebody they are unable to have a wash. “The salt water sticks to our body,” says Suresh. “It is only when we return home at night that we are able to have a bath.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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