Swimming lessons could mean life or death in Maldives

Most tourists in the Maldives are still sleeping when swimming lessons begin at 6.30am.

Christof Langer is one of the lifeguards from Germany who have been teaching their skills to a group of people from the Maldives.

Lessons begin early because weather conditions and the sea currents are usually at their best then for swimming.

One of the tasks Langer’s students face is a 100m swim to a buoy in one minute and 40 seconds. It is an important lesson as a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death—something Maldivans have bitter experience of.

Although most people on the Maldives live on the seashore, very few can actually swim and life-saving skills are almost unheard of. Langer and three other people from Germany were sent to the Maldives to change that.
In the past weeks, they have trained 80 locals to become lifeguards.

Their life-saving course is one of 30 projects in the Maldives set up by the German Red Cross after the tsunami waves struck in December last year.

“Above all, it’s about helping them to help themselves,” says Red Cross spokesperson Hanna Hutschenreiter.

The Maldives were left relatively unscathed by the tsunami disaster, but nothing will ever be the same again for the people of the archipelago. More than 80 people were killed and 100 000 made homeless by the tsunami. The tourism industry, an important source of income for the Maldives, collapsed for months.

Christof Langer did not have to think long before deciding to answer the Red Cross call for experienced lifeguards.

Langer has been a lifeguard since his teens, spending most of his free time on the shores of Lake Sims in Bavaria or training youngsters.

He travelled to the Maldives in mid-November and brought life belts, training mannequins to practise resuscitation, and other emergency equipment.

The 38-year-old waived his fee. “I sacrificed my vacation as well,” he says.

Langer runs a company that makes kayaks, and it had to do without his services during his stay on the Maldives.

His life on Hurra Atoll, where he has been staying, bears little resemblance to those of tourists living in the luxury hotel resorts.

He has been living with the course participants in a camp. Most of his students have travelled from distant islands and spent many hours in boats learning how to become lifeguards.

Only people with good swimming skills have been able to participate. The course consisted of 12 hours of teaching a day, and for many it was simply too much.

“Some people fell ill because they were just not used to the pace,” says Langer.

The cool early-morning temperature was also a new experience for the islanders, who are used to the warmer temperatures of later in the day.

It has been a learning experience for Langer and his team also.

They have found that it not simple to take their training programme from Germany to people used to life in the tropics.

Pictures in the training manuals of lakes in southern Germany or the North Sea coastline confuse some of the students.

“We have [had] to exchange those with photographs from here,” explains Langer.

Exercises such as saving someone who has fallen into icy water or a fast-flowing river are just not relevant. Langer instead had to ask himself how to treat someone injured by coral.

Even resuscitation training on the mannequin posed a problem. Maldivans would find it easier to practise if the mannequin bore more resemblance to their features instead of a northern European.

After a lot of training, almost all of the 80 original participants have successfully completed the course and been awarded certificates.

“You could really feel the tension and the joy afterwards when they showed their friends and family what they had learnt,” says Langer.

He hopes the project will be repeated in the coming years—but for now he has returned to the cold of Munich.

More than a dozen of his students accompanied him to the airport for the start of the journey back home, making it an emotional farewell.

“We became friends,” he says.—Sapa-DPA

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