x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Some people stand in the darkness

Watching the people who need to help somebody when the edge of surrender's in sight at the National Lifeguard Championships.

Sunday morning was probably the safest time imaginable for a swim at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort, a hotel in Fujairah that looks a lot like a concrete CD tower rising out of a patch of greenery on a desert beach. With over 50 lifeguards milling around by the water, any swimmers could relax knowing that professional help was close at hand. But given the calm of the sea, most beachgoers had more pressing health and safety concerns: sunburn and dehydration from the 40 degree heat, scorched feet from walking shoeless on the baking sand, person-on-person collisions caused by foggy sunglasses from the 80 per cent humidity, rashes from bathing suits pulled too tightly over sweaty folds of skin and so on.

Even in the face of these dangers, several dozen tourists were on the beach, where the standard lifeguard / tourist relationship was practically inverted. The tourists stayed on the sand, while the lifeguards jumped in and out of the water. The tourists watched. The lifeguards let themselves be watched. Welcome to the Third Annual National Lifeguard Championships. All day, teams of lifeguards from hotels and water parks across the country (plus a guest team from the Intercontinental in Qatar) competed in intense events with even more intense descriptions. "Beach Sprint Relay: A standard ILS event run over a 90m course on the beach. A pure speed and agility test over sand requiring the lifeguard team to test themselves to the limit." The lifeguards raced on land, they raced in the ocean, they raced in the pool, they raced to pull mannequins and "simulated conscious casualties" (that is, a limp guy with his eyes closed) from the water.

There were so many news cameras that one could be forgiven for wondering whether something greater than a GCC holiday voucher was at stake, or whether one of the teams was manned entirely by Millions Poet finalists. The cameras were constantly being told to get out of the way. During the Beach Spring Relay, one walked impudently onto the makeshift track to obtain a "runners zooming by" shot. "Cameraman!" bellowed the official through his megaphone. "Get your arse off my track!" The bellower was Stuart Hodsoll, a trim and preternaturally chipper British man who took a year off before university, started lifeguarding in Australia, never showed up for university and has been lifeguarding or training lifeguards ever since. Hodsoll is now the operations manager for the Aquaventure water park in Dubai, but he used to work at Le Meridien, where he launched the National Lifeguard Championship.

It was a year of firsts and records for the NLC. Female lifeguards (two) competed, a father and son competed on the same team and the oldest competitor in the competition's history was present. That would be Paul Saffinga, a 64-year old Australian man who was there to earn official competitive lifeguarding points to qualify for this year's world lifeguarding championships in Germany, competed on the Qatar team. For Saffinga, the NLC was more than just a day off from work and a free trip to Fujairah.

"In 20 years," Saffinga said, "no one has beaten me. Ever. When I was in the world championship in New Zealand, I was set to win, but I had an Achilles tendon problem, and my doctor said 'either you pull out, or you win with a snapped tendon.' So I got out. But, later, the world record holder came back to Australia, and I raced him, and I beat him." Two years ago, Saffinga moved to Qatar to teach business studies, though his speciality is environmental science ("They call me Doctor Paul," he says, "and the doctor is real. My PhD was voted the most outstanding PhD of the year by the Soil Scientists Society of America," he says. "And they don't like to do that for an Aussie.") One day, he got a call from Robert Emmyan, the European long jump champion, who is also based in Qatar now.

"I hear you want to be the champion," Emmyan told him. "I can make you explosive."