Lessons from a Lifeguard

Stay safe this summer with water tips from lifesaver Kirstey-Anne Wernich

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photography: Nick Gordon

Some people stand in the darkness, afraid to step into the light. Some people need to have somebody with the edge of surrender in sight. Don’t you worry, it’s going to be all right, and that’s because Kirstey-Anne Wernich won’t let you out of her sight. 

The 15-year-old Edgemead High School student didn’t go the usual route of nippers (young surf lifesavers aged between 5 and 14 who don’t patrol beaches but focus on fun and surf awareness) and instead waded her way into lifesaving via all of the school sport she does.

“I’ve always been a strong swimmer and done well at galas,” says Kirstey, who's busy opening up the Milnerton Surf Lifesaving Club's clubhouse on a Saturday morning. “I had some friends at the Big Bay Club who told me to try it out, because I was doing so well at swimming, so I gave it a try and really enjoyed it and have been doing it ever since.”

A first team swimmer – butterfly, backstroke and freestyle – Kirstey is also on the first team for athletics – 100m, long jump, javelin and 400m – and plays first team hockey as well.

"I’ve only done one lifesaving competition so far and came second overall," Kirstey tells us while setting up the flags. Having surveyed the water in front of the clubhouse for currents and any other dangers, Kirstey finds the safest spot on the beach and then digs the flags into the sand, which demarcates the area where the bathers must swim. "Lifesaving helps a lot with my other sports, too. It’s really good for stamina, fitness… and it also makes you a lot more aware of things around you. You’re always watching and observing everything."

Having recently attained a Surf Lifeguard Award, Kirstey is now putting into practice everything she's been taught. 

"It was nine weeks, pretty intense, and we learned so much stuff. CPR, spinal board, board rescues, torpedo buoy rescue and then a lot of theory. There’s this really thick book where we had to learn all the anatomy and physiology… And then there was the fitness."

Obviously being a strong swimmer is a requirement, and all SLA hopefuls are put through their paces where they must complete a 400m-pool swim in less than eight minutes, a run-swim-run (200m/300m/200m) on the beach and in the surf in under 10 minutes, a lifeline swim, a torpedo buoy rescue and a rescue board rescue. This practical evaluation ensures that the lifesaver has the relevant skills needed to execute rescues in the ocean and deliver basic first aid and resuscitation assistance. 

Kirstey is now racking up some voluntary service hours that will help her to polish her skills and if needs be put her training to the test.

“There are four squads with six people per squad, three seniors and three juniors and sometimes there’s also a medic. The medic doesn’t do any swimming and will help with the first aid stuff. Saturdays we’re on duty between two and five and on Sundays we’ll work from ten to five. Average day? We’ll open up here in the morning, set up the flags, put the torpedo buoys and fins down, carry a rescue board down to the beach and then go upstairs and watch from the watchtower. Oh, and for each beach duty we sign into the log book where we record all of the information on a particular day, like beach conditions, number of bathers, time on duty and stuff like that.” 

Although Kirstey hasn’t seen much action yet, she knows what to look out for. There’s usually a rip current pulling from the left of the club because of the lagoon and so she sets up the flags well away from this. Because her training saw her caught in some pretty strong rips she knows exactly what to do when it happens to someone else.

“I’ll swim out to them and try to keep them calm. Most people panic. Don’t do that! I know not to fight the current, to either swim parallel to it, about 30 – 40 metres, and only then swim back to shore. If that’s not working then I’ll tread water with the person, while keeping them calm, and wave for board assistance. But obviously we try and prevent people from getting caught in a rip in the first place.”

Fortunately Milnerton beach is relatively safe with no big drop offs, rocks, large swells and other dangers, and Kirsty knows that as long as she keeps the bathers in between the flags that she’ll then be able to prevent a rescue, which is always the better option. 

Planning on spending the rest of summer doing voluntary service, Kirstey has a few ideas where she’d like to see her lifesaving take her: 

“Next year I’ll do an upgrade course, become a seasonal lifeguard and get paid. After school I’d like to take a year off, either work as a pro-guard or travel overseas and see if I can do it there. It’s a lot more fun than waitressing...”

Here's a checklist of water safety proceedures, courtesy the people at Lifesaving South Africa, so that you can be safe wherever you swim this summer. 

Learn to Swim

  • Swim near a lifeguard
  • Never swim alone
  • Don’t dive in headfirst
  • Take precautions for the heat and sun
  • Always swim between the red and yellow flags
  • Obey warning signs and lifeguards' instructions
  • If in difficulty, raise a hand above your head
  • Do not panic – conserve your energy. Help will arrive
  • Obey instructions of the lifeguards. They are there to protect you
  • Understand and avoid rip currents and dangerous areas
  • Respect the water and the environment

River Safety

  • Check the strength of the current by throwing a small twig into the water (remember the current is stronger on the outside of bends)
  • If you get caught in a current, float on your back with your feet downstream. Angle yourself to the shore
  • Submerged objects can be very dangerous. Always enter the water feet-first
  • Remember that river conditions can change rapidly from heavy rainfall or release of water from storage areas

Lakes and Dams Safety

  • Cold water in lakes and dams can cause distress. The water below the surface is often colder than you expect. This sudden reduction in temperature can cause shock and lack of mobility. If this happens get out of the water immediately
  • The bottom of lakes and dams can be soft, uneven and changeable. Be careful of submerged objects and always enter the water feet-first
  • Lakes and dams are open expanses of water. A rising wind can suddenly cause choppy waves that make it dangerous to swim

General Water Safety

  • Don’t swim directly after a meal, or when under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Protect your skin. Always use a sunscreen of at least 15+. Limit your exposure particularly between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm
  • Never swim alone and always limit the distance you swim out knowing that you have to swim back  

Alcohol Abuse

  • Alcohol abuse is known to be the prime cause of aquatic/drowning disasters
  • Swimming and alcohol do not mix