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Phuket's Karon beach, beautiful but brooding  . . . and risky at the wrong time

For Phuket's Sake, Remember Rebecca and Swim Safe

Thursday, September 23, 2010
News Analysis

WATER SAFETY experts are hoping to encourage airlines flying to Phuket to screen an in-flight message warning about dangers at beaches and in pools. This tactic is being adopted in Australia to deal with an unexpected rise in beach drownings.

On Phuket, where the number of drownings in proportion to the population far exceeds the Australian figures, much still needs to improve.

The need for swift change was brought home in a vivid account of the last moments of a young British tourist who drowned on Phuket earlier this year.

Here's what Ian Fenwick told a British coroner's hearing about being with 21-year-old Rebecca Callaghan at Karon beach: ''We were in the water and saw the red flags lined along the beach so we asked three lifeguards what they meant as they seem to mean different things in different parts of the country.

''We were told not to go swimming and not to lie down as the current was particularly strong that day; but going in the shallows was ok.

''Conditions seemed quite calm. We were in the water up to our knees, hugging, when a wave came from behind and knocked us off our feet. The sand beneath the water was different depths and the water was over my head.

''I had Rebecca on my back at one point but the water and her weight was pushing me under. I remember feeling her arms let go of me.''

A report in the Worcester News of Ms Callaghan's inquest continued: ''When Mr Fenwick rose to the surface he swam towards shore shouting for help as another wave crashed down, leading him to think he would not get back to the beach at all. He eventually got to his feet and saw Miss Callaghan lying face down in the water.''

Attempts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful. It was June 12, the first day of their holiday on Phuket. The couple had been travelling with two friends at the start of a three-month backpacking adventure.

Miss Callaghan was due to begin studying an animal welfare course at university this month, the newspaper said. Coroner Geraint Williams recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Several more drownings of tourists on popular Phuket west coast beaches have followed - all of them preventable and unnecessary.

Statistically, fewer drownings have taken place so far this year on Phuket's beaches in comparison with last year. More resorts understand that their help is needed to warn all visitors of the dangers.

A three-stage warning process - on incoming flights, as guests check in at resorts, and at the beaches - is now seen as the most effective method of alerting everyone to the danger, especially during the monsoon season.

The warnings are best complemented by trained lifeguards who can rescue people from the surf if necessary.

Phuket Provincial Administrative Organisation chief executive Paiboon Upatising has given support to recent efforts to improve training, and to promoting Phuket's annual surf lifesaving carnival.

What needs to happen next is for the lifeguard system to be kept in place all year long. Many Thai and expat tourists would be horrified to know that Phuket's popular beaches go unguarded during high season, when most people are at the beaches.

A year-round system would also help to preserve the skills of a team that has to be reassembled each year because the lifeguard service has to be put out to tender. While the tendering system minimises the risk of corruption, it also minimises the chances of retaining skilled lifesavers.

Advances in equipment - the best system would put jet-skis with sleds on every beach - are coming, but costly. An Australian designer has even produced a surf ski that is perfect for lighter-bodied Thais.

Help is on the way. Sadly, it has come too late for some holidaymakers who believed they were safe in the surf on Phuket, including young Rebecca Callaghan.
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Comments have been disabled for this article.


"..Statistically, fewer drownings have taken place so far this year on Phuket's beaches in comparison with last year...'' only because this year the surf season had been very poor of nice waves, so the beaches weren't so dangerous and not many people tried to challenge the waves.


A lot can do, and of course a right information would be good!

Posted by Richard on September 23, 2010 18:52

Editor Comment:

Richard, claims like that are unfair because you can't prove it, and we can't check it. In some countries, you'd get sued.


Sorry but I don't believe his testimony and he needs to take responsibility for his own actions.

Where in one spot was there THREE lifeguards? What other parts of the country do red flags means something different? Had they been elsewhere on this trip in Thailand?

I would guess to say they went deeper even though they were told not to. Typical arrogant westerners not listening to the locals.

Posted by Vfaye on September 24, 2010 10:26


No lifeguards in high season, and what is the drowning rate? Practically nil, I would wager.

Lifeguards, or more accurately, beach patrolers aren't necessary in high season because the water laps up like a bath. The killer rip tides and waves just aren't there.

Posted by Ripley on September 24, 2010 15:58

Editor Comment:

I photographed the body of 10-year-old Max who drowned on January 1 this year. Peak season, Nai Harn. No lifeguards. Children will die all year long if you let them.


I disagree. It is the summer rip tides that have Phuket's drowning rate at alarming levels. To have beaches staffed in the high season is just unnecessary expense.

If a 10 yo boy drowns in calm ocean waters, it is because his parent was neglectful and not watching out for him. How many hundreds of resort pools in Phuket are unattended yet drowning is rare.

Loss of life should always be a horrible accident and not wholly preventable tragedies.

People must be responsible and that includes Phuket Authorities assuring potential visitors are fully informed of the seasonal dangers and hotel and resort promotional groups must be held accountable for advertising but not warning.

Posted by Ripley on September 25, 2010 08:53

Editor Comment:

There is no way of knowing how many people drown on Phuket's beaches or when because the figures supplied by the Public Health Department are not split into beach drownings, canal drownings, trawler drownings etc. However the main point is that the skills developed by the lifeguards will be lost at the end of every monsoon season unless there is a year-round service. What do you expect them to do - live on half a year's low pay? The cost of maintaining the service all year long is not huge, and the benefits from Phuket being seen to be a safe destination in the eyes of tourists is huge. Skilled lifeguards are also able to help all year long with analysis of marine life, environmental issues, and the heart attacks and other health crises that inevitably increase dramatically in the high season when more people are on Phuket. The waters are never calm. The boy died in a year-round ''rip'' at Nai Harn which has frequently come close to claiming many others. Your concern for parental control is touching, but unrealistic. I guess that means orphans are expendable? There is no comparison between pools and the sea, and the best managements always have lifeguards on duty at their pools - all year long.


No orphans are not expendable.
Children who drown are not properly supervised no matter the situation or their family status.
Facts are; People are drowning in the summer, not the winter.

Plenty of resort destinations only hire out lifeguards for half the year because that is the only time they are needed.
Lifeguarding is a seasonal job all over the world.

More lives could be saved by extensive awareness campaigns rather than expensive contractors.

Posted by Ripley on September 25, 2010 09:35

Editor Comment:

Drownings in the past few months: January 1 (10 year old Max) February 3 March 3 April 5 May 3 June 5 . . . people seem to drown when they choose to drown. Lifeguarding is a seasonal job only where harsh winters keep people off the beach. If people are swimming, lifeguards are needed. Phuket is a year-round beach destination. Dangers are ever-present. Awareness is a separate issue. The budget for an essential year-long lifesaving service shouldn't be diluted. It's not an expensive service - you keep saying that, but it's not true.


Safety guidelines must be updated and media,airlines,hotels etc should warn tourists about these problems...

I agree that life guards be on duty 12 months of the year...i think things are getting better slowly.. and its good to see Phuket taking good advice from the Australian life guard organisation...

At the end of the day people are still responsible for themselves...BUT..when you see an accidental death by drowning like makes you think...could this been avoided more WARNINGS....

Posted by barka on September 26, 2010 15:18


Hiring skilled labor - scores if it to be done correctly, if it isn't expensive I suggest it may be lacking.

Make ALL swimmers aware is a better choice. Education will always trump reactionary expenditure. Teach a woman to fish...

Posted by Ripley on September 27, 2010 09:17


The placement and explanation of "red flags" could use a lot of improvement. Currently, the red flags are often placed alongside Thai national flags, making people wonder what the red flags mean. Wouldn't it make a whole lot more sense to replace the red flags with signs that have descriptive pictures of drowning people, rip tides, big surf, etc. ?

Posted by Tired of the act on November 10, 2010 18:35

Tuesday May 21, 2024
Horizon Karon Beach Resort & Spa


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