Tal Pilater
Tal Pilater. Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
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From the lifeguard tower on Bograshov Beach in Tel Aviv the sea looked blue and fresh, and the people in the water seemed to be enjoying themselves. "Looks like you have a fun time here," I said to the three lifeguards on duty, in keeping with standard operating procedures. The head of the crew, Tal Pilater, did not offer a smile.

"You should come some morning when we open and stay until 7 P.M. Then we'll see how you feel," he said.

Pilater, 38, is the son of Icho Pilater, one of the founders of Israel's lifeguard stations. After working at Bograshov Beach for 15 years, he served as the head of lifeguarding for the Tel Aviv municipality for 30 years.

"I've been in the profession from age zero," Tal Pilater says. "I was only 12 when I made my first rescue." Officially, he has been a lifeguard on the Tel Aviv seashore for 17 years and is now the head lifeguard at Bograshov.

"I really love the work," he says. "Anyone who doesn't love the work doesn't last here. It's a huge responsibility. If you make a mistake, no doctor or the most sophisticated hospital equipment can correct it."

There are 13 lifeguard towers in Tel Aviv, six of which also operate in the winter (on a limited basis ). According to Pilater, few veteran lifeguards work only in the summer. During the hot months, the regulars are augmented by seasonal staff who are hired for just the summer. He himself works year-round.

The ideal lifeguard, Pilater notes surprisingly, "has to love not only the sea, but also people." But that's not always easy. One common form of harassment, he says, is beachgoers who ask him for the time.

"On Saturday the beach is packed with thousands of people and many of them ask the lifeguards what time it is," he says. "So what did we do? We complained to the Interior Ministry and to the municipality, and they installed a clock on the tower. Now, someone comes by every 10 minutes to ask if the clock is accurate."

Still, Pilater says, "There is no greater pleasure and satisfaction than saving a life. You feel as if you have been privileged to be God's emissary. Also, there's no lifeguard who doesn't like to hit the surf on a wavy day with a hasakeh [a kind of skiff]." Pilater likes that the work is outdoors and the variety that comes with it. "Being a lifeguard is something that attracts people - here you are, interviewing me," he says.

'Connected to nature'

Pilater always knows where the water is deep, where it's shallow and where there are undercurrents. "That's the professionalism of lifeguards. You have to be connected to nature, to the water, to people. A person in distress doesn't always wave his hands and shout 'Help!' Sometimes you spot someone in distress even before he knows it himself."

These days, Pilater says, kids attend after-school enrichment programs or sit home in front of the computer. Fewer go to the beach. As a result, "We get lifeguards who only start to learn the basics at the age of 25. It takes them a long time to integrate and they are also less professional," he explains.

This situation, along with the low pay (NIS 25 an hour for lifeguards who began after 1999, an amount set in collective wage agreements and which the Finance Ministry enforces rigorously, Pilater says ), has reduced the luster of the profession and also decreased the quality of the lifeguards, Pilater notes. The new lifeguards "get through the month only because they work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It shouldn't be like that. We may not have a formal education, but we save lives."

In light of the low wages and the fact that few people become closely acquainted with the sea from an early age, Pilater predicts that there will be a serious shortage of lifeguards in the future. To avert that, he says, salaries must be raised significantly and the lifeguard training course needs to be changed.

"The course must be a lot longer, more extensive and broader than it is now," he says. To this day, no mistake has occurred on his beach, he notes, adding, "On the day something happens on my beach, I hope that I already will have stopped working here."