The Surfer Lifesavers of PHUKETThe Surfer Lifesavers of PHUKET

In recent years, Phuket has been plagued with tourist drowning and this subject has become a regular topic in the media?and drowning is among the leading causes of death for tourists visiting Phuket. A review of news articles published in the Phuket Gazette from 2007 through 2009 regarding ocean safety identified two reoccurring topics: drowning and the provision of lifeguards.

Lifeguarding services have been precarious over previous years, alongside various allegations and funding issues. Simply put, sometimes there are lifeguards and sometimes there is not. At the time of writing this article there were not.

Drowning is a frequent cause of death among international travelers which requires special attention due to their unfamiliarity with ocean beaches and surfing activities, and in some cases having additional challenges of poor swimming skills, language barriers, disorientation in a foreign vacation environment, and perhaps the consumption of alcohol.

Ocean Currents in Phuket

From a perspective of ocean safety, weather conditions on the Andaman Coast produce identifiable hazards associated ocean conditions during the surf season (May to October) in three ways. First, as waves arrive close together (called short-period swell), they can propagate a proportionately strong ocean current, even if the waves may not appear particularly large or dangerous. Secondly, short-period swells allow swimmers and surfers very little time to recover between waves. For example, a swell period of 6 seconds implies that a wave would crash on the shore (or on surfers and swimmers in the surf zone) every six seconds. Thirdly, ocean conditions are often associated with stormy or ?choppy? water surface conditions, which can inhibit visibility and disorientate individuals.

Interviews with Industry Professionals

Director of Hawaii County Aquatics, Larry Davis, recently visited Phuket and examined ocean safety conditions: ?The water safety aspect needs to be realized in Phuket, it is much more dangerous than it appears, especially for the lay person. Ocean safety does not appear to be taken seriously in Phuket.? With years of front-line experience, Thai waterman Khun Somkhit Kuernun identified: ?Before the tsunami, there were an average of 12-16 surf-related drowning per year, but for the last 5 years, with intermittent periods of having lifeguards on beaches, the average was 9-12 per year [prior to 2009 surf season]. Most of the drowning during the surf season is surf-related, while drowning in the high season is usually alcohol related.?

Interviews with Surfers

167 interviews were conducted from May 2007 to January 2010 with surfers in Phuket. They included 48 Thai and foreign resident surfers who surf regularly during the Andaman surfing season and had at least one personal experience in an ocean rescue situation. Secondly, interviews were carried out with 119 surf tourists from a variety of countries including Australia, America, Singapore, Japan, South Africa, and others. Most of the surf tourists were interviewed randomly and spontaneously while surfing. For example, while waiting for waves, I regularly asked individuals about their experiences and opinions regarding ocean safety in Phuket.

Among surfers, several scenarios were identified regarding surf-related rescues. Foremost, Thai and foreign resident surfers rescue tourists and Thai swimmers; and to a lesser extent, surf tourists rescue other tourists and Thai swimmers. The vast majority of surfers who responded to the rescues where already in the water when they saw or heard the person in trouble in the surf line. Nearly all the surfers were able to describe the chain of events surrounding each rescue in some detail and were therefore included in the study.

Of the 48 Thai and foreign resident surfers interviewed (all of whom reside in Phuket or Phang-nga) and surf regularly during the Andaman surfing season, 23 reported that they had each made at least two rescues per year over the previous three year period (2007-2009). This more or less coincides with my personal experience of 8 rescues during the three year study period. Therefore, with 23 surfers having rescued an average of 2 people per year, the study identifies an average of 46 rescues per year. Multiplied by 3 (3 years), this amounts to 138 rescues.

Additionally, the author recorded 53 rescues of various sorts by Thai and foreign resident surfers in the same period (2007-2009). For example, there was a report of a group of four European tourists swept off the beach near Khao Lak and were rescued by foreign resident surfer Matt Blauer. Totaling the aforementioned 138 rescues and the 53 random rescues for the same period, and including the 8 rescue-assists made by the author, this study documented 199 rescues performed from 2007-2009.

In a second study group, 119 surf tourists were asked about their experiences in water safety while in Phuket. 22 surf tourists described that they had rescued a tourist swimmer one time during their surfing vacation in Phuket, while 4 surf tourists reported that they rescued at least 2 tourist swimmers during their surfing experience in Phuket and one described assisting a family of 3. This indicates that of the 119 surf tourists interviewed from 2007-2009, 27 (over 20 percent) had made rescues totaling 33 swimmers.

This study was unable to identify the place of origin for individuals who were rescued due to the fact that most of the surfers who performed rescues did not think at the time to ask individuals where they were from. However, upon being interviewed, many surfers recalled that their victims were likely to have been European. Regarding the 8 rescues that I made, all were male tourists of the following nationalities: 4 German, 2 Russian, 1 Swiss and 1 Japanese.

Concluding Thoughts

Surfers are inevitably surf lifesavers as they are in the surf line and are often the first to encounter tourists in dire need of assistance. My research documented 232 rescues by surfers over the past 3 years?The actual number is likely to be considerably higher since this statistic only reflects those surfers that I had the opportunity to interview.

The question remains: how to turn around this mounting issue and prevent the loss of life?and to reverse the terrible image that Phuket is receiving from all this? I would like to propose the following:

?? The government will need to allocate an appropriate budget in order to train and pay lifeguards at a professional level. If we want specialist behavior it will come at a specialized price.

?? Mobilize the surfers. The surfers are already filling the gap in water safety and surf rescues.

?? Bring in the professionals from Hawaii, California or Australia as trainers and mentors.

?? Provide videos on all arriving flights during the monsoon season which discuss the nature of the surf conditions and associated currents (this has been done with marked success for many years in Hawaii).

?? Once professional lifeguards are in place, statistics need to be kept regarding ?who, how, what, where, when and why? the rescues take place, alongside related wind, wave, and weather data (this is standard operating procedure in California, Hawaii, and Australia).

As the tourism industry pushes to annualize the tourist season?and draw tourists during the monsoon season?the issue of drowning and water safety will inflate. By offering the Thai surfers a chance at a good salary and a fulsome profession, and by bringing in the globally recognized professionals to train and inspire them, the current negative image can be wholly reversed and confidence to promote tourism in monsoon season restored. In a global context, waves and surfing are a powerfully positive image; why not turn the negative into a positive?? Can we rebrand the ?Monsoon Season? as ?Surf Season? where Phuket beaches are guarded by a new class of Thai water safety men and women?





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