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To celebrate Women’s Month, we chatted to two women passionate about saving lives on South African waters.

Joining the ‘family business’

“My family got involved in lifesaving when I was quite young. My older siblings were lifeguards and I looked up to them, so I followed in their footsteps and started my lifeguarding career at the age of 14 as a volunteer,” says Rebecca Carter-Smith, NSRI’s Lifeguard Training Coordinator.

“I loved the fact that I got to spend my weekends at the beach with like-minded people. But becoming an instructor is what really solidified my love for lifeguarding. Teaching and coaching new lifeguards about something I loved, and witnessing others persevere and enjoy it made it even better. I loved the people I met along the way, the friendships built with fellow lifeguards and the emergency workers who assisted us in our rescues… It was a passion of mine that I was so fortunate to be able to take it further.”

Rebecca joined the NSRI in June 2021 as a volunteer and, in almost no time at all, found herself rising through the ranks to Lifeguard Training Coordinator. “Initially, I was asked by the Melkbos Station Commander if I could assist with a few training sessions with his new trainee lifeguards, and after the first two sessions, I saw the commitment they showed and the eagerness they had to learn, and I just loved it. It solidified that this is what I wanted to do in life. I signed up to be a volunteer and started as a trainee crew member. Then a position at the Volunteer Support Centre (head office) became available and, I thought, this is my dream. I was over the moon when I got the job.”

When she first started as a lifeguard, Rebecca knew she would have to work hard to prove herself and her capabilities. “I wanted to show everyone that female lifeguards are just as capable – and some even more capable – than the men. Since being an instructor, I’ve noticed that female rescuers take just that extra bit of care, for example, when performing first aid, and they also go the extra mile to understand the equipment they use to see how they can make it work more to their advantage. I’ve been privileged enough to work with some incredible female lifeguards, who worked hard, pushed themselves further and showed so much passion and kindness.”

Rebecca says that within the NSRI, everyone is treated equally, regardless of gender, yet there are those outside the organisation who are still surprised to find themselves in contact with a female lifeguard.

“Before I joined NSRI, I was part of another lifesaving organisation. One day, I was standing on the beach with a recently qualified male lifeguard – I was the senior in charge for the day – when a gentleman approached us. I asked how I could assist and he directed his queries to the male lifeguard next to me. He was visibly shocked to hear that I was the one who would be able to assist him better as I was in charge.”

A passion for helping people

Lifegyards Jaylene

While it is unfortunate that these incidents occur, they are, thankfully, few and far between – and certainly have no place within the NSRI.

“Men and women do exactly the same training and are given the same opportunities at the NSRI,” says Jaylene Engelbrecht, a lifeguard working in Sedgefield and Knysna since she finished matric last year. “There are no instances where we’re told we’re not strong enough because we’re women. We’re out there paddling four-metre swells with the boys!”

Jaylene came to lifeguarding through her grandfather, Mike Wood, head of the lifeguards for Sedgefield and Knysna. “He’s been a lifeguard for 22 years, so I grew up seeing him doing what he does, and it called to me.”

Jaylene joined the NSRI in 2019, and after she got a taste of rescue work, she wanted more. “I loved volunteering for the NSRI, and it made me realise I wanted to be on the beach, where the action happens, so that I can respond straight away. I have a passion for helping people.” Her dream is to become a paramedic.

“My experience with the NSRI has been amazing, their resources are great, and they give us everything we need. They give us our lifesaving kits, counselling when there’s been an incident… there’s so much to fall back on. And it’s so equal – everyone is equal.”

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