As typhoon Fengshen was sweeping up the coast in June, a group of youngsters was plunging into the waves at Shenzhen. Far from being thrill seekers, they were lifesavers from Hong Kong preparing for world championships in Germany, training with People's Liberation Army soldiers who were also going to compete.
'Although the army has strong swimmers, they were also scared of the waves,' says Charles Wong Ming-yin, a coach for the team from the Hong Kong Life Saving Society. 'I let the athletes stand with their backs to the waves until they became more confident and they went into the sea in pairs, starting with the strongest.'
Rescuing people who get into trouble in the water, or rather the art of performing such rescues, has become a competitive sport. International championships are held to promote exchanges of techniques among lifesavers.
Contestants are pitted against each other in simulated rescues. In a team event, a group entering a pool is given two minutes in which to rescue as many 'victims' as possible. At the beach, the team may be required to scoop up a struggling swimmer with a special tube and carry the person to safety. There are individual events too in which contestants use fins, rescue tubes, boards and ski paddlers to traverse obstacle courses.
Hong Kong sent six men and six women to the championships which ended last week, ranking 19th among the 33 teams. At the sea events held in Warnemunde, they struggled in choppy waters with strong currents and an influx of jellyfish - conditions they seldom encounter in Hong Kong. Although they didn't win medals, the team broke two Hong Kong records at the pool competitions in Berlin in the 4x25 metres mannequin-towing relays for men and women.
Contestants learn tips on effective lifesaving. 'For example, when we found [at previous championships] that some teams carried the mannequin across their backs rather than hold them at their sides because this increases their speed, we started practising that too,' says Eric Tsang Wai-sheung.
A professional lifeguard at the Gold Coast beach in Tsuen Wan, Tsang won a gold for line-throwing (coiling and throwing a rope accurately to a victim in the pool) in the Asian championships in Hong Kong in 2005. 'I practised for hours on end for that one,' he recalls. 'You need to develop your own technique and learn how to communicate with the victim.'
There are surprisingly few professionals in the Hong Kong team, which is made up mostly of university students - competitive swimmers who have branched into lifesaving. One such is Winnie Wong Hock-wing.
'Lifesaving is more challenging than just swimming in the pool because it allows me to practise different skills,' says the 21-year-old physiotherapy student. 'And there's a lot of satisfaction knowing that you could save a life.'
Coaches and supervisors, however, come from all walks of life, including ambulance drivers, firemen and fund managers.
Aspiring lifesavers spend a few hours at the pool each week with instructors from the lifesaving society, learning how to perform rescues and resuscitations and the best ways to carry patients with broken bones or spinal injuries. On a hot weekday last week, recreational swimmers at the public pool in Sham Shui Po watched a group practise resuscitation on each other while another crew practised towing a swimmer to safety.
After 40 sessions, candidates can take an exam to qualify as lifeguards. Although some seek work as lifeguards with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the strongest swimmers typically go on to compete in international lifesaving competitions.
A founding member of the International Life Saving Federation, the Hong Kong society was set up in 1956 and estimates that its members have performed more than 30,000 rescues since then. It now has about 10,000 active members, many of whom serve as volunteer lifeguards in the summer.
'I encourage our members to give something back to the community because that's an important part of their personal development,' says Charles Wong, 40, who coaches the team in board-paddling.
William Lee Kin-leung, 21, a finalist in two relay events in Germany, is among the volunteers watching swimmers. During the past two years he has spent his summers at Shek O beach. It's eight hours with token pay but Lee gets job satisfaction. 'I've had to rescue [swimmers] twice,' says the sports management student at Baptist University. 'Both times, the swimmers had gone into the water with a floating aid which was swept away.'
Often, lifeguards have to jump in because swimmers overestimate their skills. 'The last time I rescued somebody was in the diving pool,' says Jill Chan Ka-ki, an airline flight attendant who volunteers as a lifeguard. 'Kids jumped into the pool and then realised they didn't know how to swim.'
Chan's job gives her time to volunteer, but putting in the hours needed for competitions can be tough. The team trains three times a week in the pool and practises at weekends for the sea events. 'We're not professional sportsmen so we don't have time to practise like some of the other teams,' she says.
Still, she is delighted to have put in a solid performance in Germany, where she was placed fourth in line-throwing. Hong Kong began participating in international competitions in 2001, and was chuffed to claim the overall lifesaving title last year at the Arafura Games in Australia. A multi-sport jamboree held every two years in Darwin, it seeks to be a springboard for athletes from the Asia-Pacific region in sports ranging from Aussie rules football to bowling.
'I really don't know how we did it because the other teams were so strong,' says Charles Wong. 'Teams like those from Australia have been honing their skills for the past 100 years and are also physically stronger.'
Team members have begun training overseas to raise their standards. 'Hong Kong waters are really calm so we need to pay to experience rough weather,' Wong says half jokingly. Apart from the recent foray in the ocean off Shenzhen, the team travelled to Sydney in 2006 to train with some of the world's best lifeguards.
Wong has been a keen advocate of lifesaving since picking up the skill at the age of 14. He had been busy with preparations for sailing in the Asian Games, but the 40-year-old returned to help the lifesaving society coach its teams.
'This is one of the few sports where the skills that form its basis are used to save lives,' he says.