Samui Wining & Dining
Be Safe – Not Saved
When the red flags are on the beach it’s time to be wary.


Be Safe – Not SavedLet’s talk about sharks for a moment. Happily we don’t get them in Thailand; well, not the dangerous ones anyway. And certainly not in Chaweng. But they do in places like South Africa and Australia. And guess what? Whenever there’s a shark warning then not a soul – nobody – goes in the water. Which is hardly surprising. The idea of a shark attack strikes dread into everyone.


But now for some curious facts. On average, sharks only kill 11 people a year, worldwide. You’ve got more chance of being struck by a falling coconut: they account for 150 deaths a year. In fact, more people are killed by falling vending machines every year than by sharks! But a chilling 400,000 folks drown each year on coastal beaches. Just think about all this for a moment.


It’s psychological. Sharks trigger a primal response based around survival, fear and flight. They frighten us. But there’s nothing in the least bit scary about clear blue skies, silvery sand and a welcoming sea with rolling waves. And that’s the problem. Particularly in Chaweng. And specifically between the months of October and January. Because that’s when the rainy season sets in, but by the time February and March come around it’s just about finished. And that’s when everyone’s just dying to splash in the sea again.


These two months are when the north-eastern monsoon that’s been causing all the rain begins to change and shift direction before it peters out for another year. And this affects the wind and the tides. When the wind is blowing directly at the beach it causes a steady swell with waves of around a metre high, sometimes higher. But what you can’t see are the two sandbanks below the surface that form a channel between them. The waves look innocent and inviting but the water returning to the open sea is, quite literally, deadly. It’s funnelled out between the sandbanks with the force of an express train. And, even wading in less than waist deep water, it can tear your legs out from under you and suck you rapidly out to sea in moments. The whole beach is not affected, but certainly the southern part is.


Of course, everyone locally is aware of this and, without wanting to frighten people away (which doesn’t happen; just the opposite, in fact), all the resorts will fly red warning flags along the beach. There are warning notices everywhere and most resorts are now concerned enough to put warning flyers in all their guests’ rooms. Yet still, year after year, as sure as eggs is eggs, people continue to completely ignore them. They simply can’t imagine the force of the water and anyway, they can swim. I mean, it’s not like there’s a shark out there, is it!


Yes it is! It’s worse than that. But that sunny sea doesn’t trigger the panic that sharks do. And so folks continue to paddle happily, regardless, “I was only ten feet out and up to my knees: what harm could there be in that!” Happily not famous last words. Not this time. I’m not going to pull any punches here. There are deaths every year and everyone should know that this is all very serious, particularly those visitors who are not familiar with the island.


Which brings me directly to the unsung heroes of Chaweng. For the last five years, an anonymous group of men have been constantly on watch every afternoon. They insist on taking no credit and seeking no publicity (“The last thing we want is hassles from the authorities for ‘working’ at saving lives!”). On rough days, there’s even one stationed out on the water on a raft. They smilingly refer to themselves as ‘Chawengwatch’ but they perform an invaluable service for which they take no reward or payment. As one of them said to me, “We don’t expect thanks. And most people are too confused and exhausted after they’ve been rescued to know what’s going on. A guy once tried to press a fistful of thousand-baht notes at me for saving his son and was sobbing with gratitude: I declined.”


Just to give you an idea of the scale of things here, in the February of 2010, in one afternoon alone, Chawengwatch rescued 63 people from the sea. The sea was rough, the red flags were furiously flapping in the wind and still people were ignoring all the danger signs. And, almost ridiculously, two life-rafts and a jet-ski were on the water all afternoon working non-stop to pull people out – a continual stream of them!


But our unsung heroes are well equipped and experienced. They are kitted out with the raft, a first-aid box, one is a doctor, and all of them are strong and fit. There are others, and I’m avoiding real names by request, but ‘Fritz’ is a fitness fanatic who runs 10 kilometres a day, swims for two hours and works out in the gym every morning. ‘Stavros’ used to be a lifeguard in Corfu and now spends the winter on Samui. And ‘Gary’ is the physician and the only one of the team who stays (comparatively) dry. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Captain Nerin’s jet-ski boys,” he told me. “And now they’re in on the act and we work together. One problem is that the hotel staff and jet-ski guys are all busy. When the sea takes someone it happens in moments and nobody notices until it’s too late. But we are constantly watching. And now we double-up on a jet-ski and get there fast! Sometimes we have to save several people at the same time.”


One of the reasons for this is the social differences between Thais and foreigners. Nearly all foreigners can swim whilst a lot of Thais can’t. Foreigners usually go into the sea in ones or twos but the Thais always go in a group and then get washed away together, making it difficult to rescue them all. Once the jet-ski workers caught on to this fact they willingly joined the party. And many thanks to them, too!


But it still comes down to people, the ever-ready ‘victims’ who can’t believe it’s dangerous or that it could happen to them. The resorts are well-aware of this and Centara Grand Beach Resort has a lifeguard with a rope harness, as does Poppies Resort. And yet still people insist on trying to get themselves drowned. Perhaps resorts could copy this article and give it to guests during red-flag periods? Although it might be better to put up signs saying ‘Danger! Shark Attack!’ In any event, visitors please take note; and a big ‘thank you!’ for the fantastic dedication from the unsung heroes of Chaweng – jet-skis and all!


Rob De Wet


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