9 October 2014

Endless Summer: The lifeguard who works his way around the world

Ben Sowter has always known he’d be a lifeguard. Growing up through the ranks of Porthtowan Surf Life Saving Club on Cornwall’s north coast, it’s all he’s ever wanted to do. And for the last couple of years, he’s clinched a rare opportunity – making the job he loves a year-round occupation.

The RNLI only has 365-day lifeguard patrols at Crosby in Merseyside. (Anyone who’s taken a Boxing Day dip can probably understand why our beaches are pretty quiet in Winter.) But since 2012, Ben has been bound for Western Australia, following endless Summers to continue saving lives on the other side of the world. It’s part of an unofficial exchange, which every year sees lifeguards from both hemispheres testing new waters, gaining wider experience and learning from their counterparts.

Ben played a vital part in a 2011 rescue which was recognised with the Alison Saunders Lifeguarding Award. Then, in his second season with Surf Lifesaving Western Australia (SLSWA), a long, difficult rescue on 10 January 2014 earned Ben, 22, and his colleague Janek Ferrandi, the Rescue of the Month award.

Rescue of the Month

The main shore break at Yallingup Beach, Western AustraliaPhoto: SLSWA
The main shore break at Yallingup Beach, Western Australia

On a good day Yallingup Beach, 160 miles south of Perth in Western Australia, is a surfer’s paradise. Locals pitch up to jump into the water after work, and in the school holidays families enjoy the shelter of the sandy lagoon to the southern end of the beach, where a curving reef breaks up the waves and provides a calm haven for swimming.

‘The water out there's pretty sharky. I certainly wouldn't go that far out if I didn't have to.’
Ben Sowter
RNLI Lifeguard

On a rough day like 10 January 2014, conditions can be fatal.

With several entrances to the 1.5km-long beach, three surfers in their 20s had entered the water out of the view of the lifeguards, paddling out through the lagoon to the building surf beyond. Inshore, the waves were breaking at up to 3m, but where the men were heading it was nearer 5m, or ‘triple overhead’. These were the most extreme conditions Ben would see all season.

Within minutes the inexperienced surfers were in serious danger. ‘There was a strong rip pulling them out from the beach, and a real strong cross-shore wind pushing them across as well,’ explains Ben. ‘By the time we’d spotted them, they’d got sucked out over half a kilometre to sea.’

Ben and Janek grabbed rescue boards and paddled out to help. A surfer since he was 5, Ben knew that conditions that day were particularly bad: ‘There were waves breaking in the channel between the two breaks. The channel’s usually calm, so that was pretty scary.’

By the time Ben and Janek reached the group, they were 700m from shore. And that wasn’t the only risk. ‘The water out there’s pretty sharky,’ grins Ben, perhaps with the confidence of hindsight and returning to Cornish waters. ‘I didn’t really think about it until I was back on the beach, but I certainly wouldn’t go that far out if I didn’t have to.’

Ben and Janek paddled with the surfers, trying to get back to shore. With the strength of the rip and the wind working in powerful combination, they had made barely any headway after 20 minutes. Janek paddled back to shore alone to call for help from the lifeguards and their rescue water craft (jet ski) at neighbouring Smiths Beach. But with that team already involved in another rescue, the Yallingup pair would have to continue alone.

Map of Yallingup Beach. Map imagery © 2014 CNES / Astrium, Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, TerraMetrics. Map data © 2014 Google
Map of Yallingup Beach. Map imagery © 2014 CNES / Astrium, Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO, TerraMetrics. Map data © 2014 Google

Left with no choice

Ben was left with three surfers clinging to his board, making any progress almost impossible. ‘I was trying to paddle them in, but really all I could do was just try not to drift any further.’ He had been out there for 45 minutes by the time Janek reached them with the news that no help was coming.

It was now clear that there was no chance of getting back in through the relative safety of the lagoon. They had drifted so far up the beach that they faced risking their lives by coming in over the notorious Shallows reef break, a nasty prospect according to Ben: ‘We didn’t really want to do it, because there’s dry rocks sticking out all over the place, but we were running out of options.’

Fortunately, the strongest of the three surfers had managed to catch a wave between the Rabbits and Shallows breaks. He was washed in over the rocks and pulled to safety by a local surfer. Meanwhile, Ben knew there would be a gap in the sets of waves, but there wouldn’t be much of one. He and Janek would have to grab their chance and get their timing spot on: ‘After about 10 minutes of waiting we just went for it. Another set was coming in and we all got bundled back over the rocks at Shallows, cutting ourselves on the way. Then we were ashore.’

No-one was seriously hurt. It was over.

Rabbits break at Yallingup BeachPhoto: Ben Sowter
Rabbits break at Yallingup Beach

Hitting home

Back on shore, the impact of the rescue began to tell. It had been an hour since Ben had left the beach. He was exhausted, with chafe marks across his chest and arms from paddling constantly, and a sunburned back from lying down on the board for so long. And having drifted so far across the bay, there was still the long kilometre’s walk back to the lifeguard post. The three rescued men were quiet, embarrassed at how they’d underestimated the powerful conditions, but otherwise unharmed.

The crucial timing suddenly became a sobering thought: ‘If you go past the point where we eventually came in, it’s pretty much all cliff face for 2-3km heading north into a cape. There would have been nowhere to get out,’ says Ben.

The rescue soon caught the attention of SLSWA, which deemed Ben and Janek’s effort Rescue of the Month for January. And as news of the rescue spread, they went on to receive the Rescue of the Month Award for the whole of Australia. Fortunately, Ben was still in the country to attend the presentation in person at a ceremony in Canberra in May. What was that like? ‘Different. I was walking around Parliament House in flip flops and lifeguard uniform, which was pretty embarrassing! But I was really happy to get the award.’

Ben receiving the Surf Life Saving Australia Rescue of the Month Award at Parliament House, Canberra. Pictured with Surf Life Saving Australia Chair of Lifesaving Mark Fife OAM and Nola Marino MPPhoto: Surf Life Saving Australia
Ben receiving the Surf Life Saving Australia Rescue of the Month Award at Parliament House, Canberra. Pictured with Surf Life Saving Australia Chair of Lifesaving Mark Fife OAM and Nola Marino MP

Rating the exchange

Now on home shores at Porthtowan for the Summer, Ben plans to carry on with this unofficial exchange as long as he’s still loving it. Will he say which is better, home or abroad? ‘I don’t know. Porthtowan in the Summer, you can’t beat it when the weather’s good. But then over there you get a lot more sun, better waves … ’ He tails off, looking out at the half-foot chop and a clutch of holidaymakers braving the moist conditions.

There’s no mistaking his affection for his home beach, and the skills he’s learned both through the Surf Lifesaving Club and the RNLI. ‘The induction you do with the RNLI is pretty full-on,’ admits Ben. ‘It’s an intense 2 weeks and you learn so much. Here, you’ve got a lot of different people available to train you, which is good. The board training definitely gets you ready if you’re going to go and work abroad too. It was put to good use that day in January.’

Full time

So that’s the year-round day job sorted. But keen surfer Ben never really clocks off. He’s been involved in countless out-of-hours rescues, including bringing in an entire wedding party who gave surfing a go ‘after a few too many Champagnes’ one Summer’s evening.

Inspired by Ben's endless Summer? We're now recruiting RNLI lifeguards for beaches around the UK and Jersey for 2016. See what's involved and apply here.

Ben surfing at Porthtowan in 2011Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams
Ben surfing at Porthtowan in 2011