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On Saturday 5 November, Station 18 (Melkbosstrand) lifeguard, sea and shore crew gathered on the beach in front of the base for their annual commemoration swim-out. We chatted to station commander Hein Köhne about the history of the event and why it is so significant for the Melkbosstrand volunteers.

“Sunday, 29 October 2017 was a difficult day for Station 18. A young boy lost his life to the sea in front of our base. Despite hours of searching by our crew and lifeguards, we were unable to find him. About a week later, the sea returned his body to land, and into the care of his family so they could say goodbye,” station commander Hein Köhne explains.

It was after this tragedy that the station decided to start each lifeguard season (traditionally around the beginning of November) with a swim-out to remember and commemorate all the loved ones who had been lost to the sea*. “Members of the public are invited to join us on the beach and bring flowers to give to the lifeguards, who then paddle or swim out and place the flowers in the water for them to commemorate their loved ones who didn’t come home from the sea.”

After the swim-out, the lifeguards start their official duties on the beach. Since then it’s become an annual event that involves all crew members of the station. “We also use the day as an induction for our new surf rescue swimmers who have qualified during the year. Overall, this is good for crew morale and builds the ‘gees’ at the station.”

The event is advertised on social media and members of the public are encouraged to join the station. This year’s event, held on 5 November, marked the 5th year anniversary of the young life lost. “We placed boats and Malibu boards on the water, so all safety aspects were in place before we started. Our crew and members of the public who joined us for the day gathered in a circle on the beach, and I said a few words and a prayer. After that everyone who wanted to swim out headed for the water with the flowers and assembled about 50 metres offshore to form another circle. A minute of silence was held and then the flowers were thrown into the air.”

Melkbosstrand Memorial Swim

Once the commemoration was over, the newly qualified surf rescue swimmers were welcomed, and were able to take up their posts and start their first day of voluntary lifeguard duty.

The swim-out and commemoration has a larger purpose, Hein says. “It serves to create awareness: it reminds members of the public to be mindful of the ocean and the tides and to swim where the lifeguards say it is safe to do so. It also humbles the lifeguards and crew as it reminds us that what we do can be potentially dangerous and we need to respect the ocean too.”

And then, also importantly, it allows the station to give back to the community on an emotional level. “Being able to do this is extremely important,” Hein says. “We want to be seen as a part of the community who cares about the wellbeing of the public on our beaches. Having this event gives families who have lost someone in the past the opportunity to get some closure and to spend some time with other people who might have also suffered that enormous pain of losing a loved one way too early. It is a very emotional day and it is difficult to put it into words.

“Being out there as a rescuer, looking around and realising the number of hours you put into part of an amazing team of people is a really proud moment too. And for the rescue swimmers, it's an important milestone in their careers and they get to celebrate that.

“It's a small event, taking no more than an hour or two – but it has tremendous meaning on many different levels for the people who participate.”

*The swim out event was the brainchild of Natasha Kriel, the first senior surf rescue swimmer in the NSRI (as Station 18 was the pioneering station for the Lifeguard Unit). It was planned by Rhine Barnes, the station commander at the time, and Peter O'Hanlon, who together with Natasha, led the Surf Rescue Swimmer programme at Station 18 in its inaugural year. Many thanks to them for their initiative and that it is now a meaningful annual event.

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