As the desperate cry for medical help filled the emergency airwaves, Southsea’s seafront volunteers leapt into action.
The crisis was unfolding at sea and within minutes the familiar red and yellow-clad lifeguards were on the scene.
In the hours that followed a mortally wounded man would be plucked from the Solent and his mother given a few precious hours to say goodbye to her son.
And the rescuers of Portsmouth and Southsea Voluntary Lifeguards – ready to help beach users with everything from grazed knees to major emergencies – would prove their incredible worth once again.
These heroic volunteers are instantly familiar to Portsmouth residents and visitors. In their red shorts and yellow T-shirts they patrol our beaches, train their binoculars on the sea and monitor radio calls in their Southsea HQ.
And as a declared Coastguard facility they can be summoned in their lifeboats to the coast’s most dramatic and terrifying events.
The call to help severely injured Patrick Beach in the Solent came in July last year. The events would end tragically as 33-year-old Patrick, from Surrey, died after he fell from a motor cruiser and his head struck the propellor.
But the fact that he was taken to hospital meant Patrick’s family were at his bedside for his final few hours.
His mum Ann is in no doubt of the enormous value of the service that endeavoured to save her son and gave her the chance to race to Southampton General Hospital from her home.
‘For a mum to be able to cradle her son in her arms, that’s everything. They gave me those precious few hours and I’ll always be grateful for that,’ says Ann. ‘I think these people are wonderful, especially as they’re all volunteers and struggle to raise the money they need.’
Lifeguard Luke Daruvalla was on duty that day and along with three others raced to the scene in the service’s RIB Portsea Rescue 1 after receiving a Coastguard message.
Patrick had been pulled from the sea to a nearby fishing vessel and the lifeguards boarded along with a paramedic from an RNLI lifeboat.
Together they helped another paramedic from the Coastguard helicopter on board and the whole rescue team prepared Patrick to be airlifted to hospital.
‘It’s what the job is all about. Obviously it’s really horrible when someone dies like that and we kind of all help each other through it afterwards, ‘ says 28-year-old Luke. ‘But the fact that the family had time with him meant so much. And we just keep striving to help people, you just can’t save everyone.’
Ann says it gave her tremendous comfort to know that there were so many people battling to save her son’s life. And his family and friends have raised money for Portsmouth and Southsea Voluntary Lifeguards. Ann now has a cheque for £5,000 to present to the organisation.
The voluntary service, which was founded in 1933, has about 40 members with lifesaving skills. With their boats, surf skis, paddleboards and first aid and rescue skills, they form a vital resource for the maritime search and rescue service HM Coastguard.
Lifeguards range in age from about 16 to 60-plus and show a tremendous amount of dedication and commitment.
The lifeguard presence in Southsea is between 10am and 6pm between May and September at weekends and 10.30am and 6pm all week during the school holidays. But during the winter many of them are busy with fundraising and committee work.
‘We do ask for a lot of commitment.’ says treasurer Trevor Linkins, who is 58 and started as a 13-year-old trainee.
‘But there’s a great social aspect to it too. This is a big part of our lives and it’s lovely being part of such a great team.’
Many members, who also have work, college and their families to think about, make sure they’re around for training evenings which can often be exciting.
Last week people strolling along the beach were given quite a spectacle when the Coastguard helicopter winched up a ‘casualty’ from one of the service’s Portsea Rescue boats.
‘It was a training exercise but people are always really interested,’ says Trevor. ‘We usually get a crowd watching.’
Another big part of their work is prevention and they’re always ready to offer advice about the dangers of the seaside.
The lifeguards weren’t among the rescuers at the scene when hero Marco Araujo leapt into the water near Old Portsmouth’s Hot Walls last week to rescue two young girls swept out to sea. Tragically his body still hasn’t been found.
Marco, was trying to help others but the volunteers warn that swimming in that area is never safe.
Whether they’re advising, performing dramatic training exercises, practising first aid or patrolling the beach, the lifeguards receive plenty of attention in their essential but glamorous role.
And of course they have had to suffer Baywatch comments for many years.
‘Yes, people shout Baywatch all the time. But I once heard two girls going past the HQ and saying “I thought lifeguards were meant to be good-looking,” laughs member Sue Corbin.
‘I had to look to see who was in there.’
In the American TV show, the stars in the red bathing suits dealt with shark attacks, serial killers and earthquakes.
Life is a little less dramatic for Portsmouth’s lifeguards but although they can often be found tending to cut feet or looking for missing dogs, they are ready to pull out all of their skills for the big rescues.
When Josef Motley went missing while swimming off Eastney in June, the volunteers helped to look for him. Unfortunately his body was discovered later that day.
And when Sonny Wells jumped from South Parade Pier in 2008 and broke his neck, lifeguards did all they could to help.
Christina Gray, 30, held Sonny’s head while paramedics tended to him after the tombstoning horror.
‘It was important that he was still but it was also a case of being there for him and talking to him,’ she says.
Sonny was left paralysed and he and his family have raised awareness about the dangers of the beach and the craze of jumping from the piers. And the lifeguards frequently send this message and others out too.
Among the biggest dangers are inflatables drifting or being blown out to sea and people chasing them. ‘They can easily get into trouble without realising how far out they’re going,’ says Trevor.
There are also the easily solved problems of dangerous glass and barbecue coals on the beach.
But whatever the issue – big, small, life-threatening or mundane – the lifeguards
are ready to make a difference.
Then and now
Today’s Southsea lifeguards are rightly proud of their long history.
Launched in 1933, the club has the distinction of being Britain’s first organised lifeguard group.
Portsmouth’s original seaside heroes came together after the Royal Life Saving Society formed the Lifeguard Corps in 1932. While other areas struggled, the city’s membership soared to about 200 people.
Members of the first co-ordinated lifeguard organisation came from local swimming clubs, the police force, the Royal Navy, Portsmouth Football Club and even the Portsmouth Evening News.
There have been many noteworthy lifesavers over the years but one had a unique way of plucking casualties to safety. An Alsatian called Bob, who belonged to PC Charles Thomas Ford, rescued casualties by allowing them to hold his tail or collar.
These days there are about 40 members with lifeguard skills as well as fundraisers.
The organisation is a registered charity and relies on donations. The current biggest challenge is to raise enough money for a new headquarters. Visit portsmouthlifeguards.org
From the shingle of Southsea to the sands of Santa Barbara – Maisie Rafferty is hoping her lifesaving skills will take her far.
The teenager has been a member of Portsmouth and Southsea Voluntary Lifeguards for several years and dreams of a bright and sunny future in the Californian city.
But the lifeguards of the West Coast beaches are top-notch and Maisie knows landing a place with Santa Barbara’s fittest and finest is going to be tough.
‘They’re doing rescues all the time in California and Australia. I’d love to go. But it’s not easy to get in, I think there’s a lot of competition,’ says the 17-year-old, who lives in Southsea. ‘There are trials – things like swimming 40 lengths of a 25-metre pool in 20 minutes and running 800 metres on sand.’
Student Maisie loves volunteering with the team in Southsea and is proof of the public’s high regard for this vital beach service.
She was selected to be an Olympic torchbearer for the Winchester leg of the relay.
‘My brother nominated me because of this and because I do athletics and things. But I think being a part of the lifeguards was the main reason I got to do it.’