Navigation for New Zealand Society

Preventing Drownings

Every year, around one hundred people drown in New Zealand waters. But it doesn’t have to be that way according to Nick Mulcahy, who's been a lifeguard in NZ and Australia since he was 14. He’s just been honoured by Risk NZ for his role in conducting substantial risk assessments of beaches throughout NZ. As Risk Manager for Surf Life Saving NZ, he’s produced innovative strategies which are being implemented throughout the country for analysing, evaluating and treating risk at beaches. Amelia Nurse joins him at Titahi Bay to talk about what those strategies involve, how they apply in real life, and how they can help save lives.

Nick Mulcahy

Nick Mulcahy Photo: Meagan Lowe

Are you up on Beach Safety? Take this quiz (answers at bottom)

1. What is the safest type of wave for swimmers:

A)        Dumping wave
B)        Shorebreak
C)        Spilling wave
D)        Surging wave

2. What causes tides?

A)        The gravitational force of the moon
B)        Wind
C)        The sun coming closest to the equator
D)        Shipping lanes

3. Which of these are signs of a rip: 

A)        Calm patches in surf with waves breaking each side
B)        Discoloured water
C)        Foamy water
D)        Sand bars with the above features between them
E)        Rippled or criss-crossed water

4. If you get caught in a rip you should:       

A)        Swim back in as hard as you can
B)        Float on your back and put your hand in the air
C)        Let the rip take you along until the current weakens
D)        Attract surfers’ attention for help
E)        Hang onto anyone swimming nearby

5. Which of the following attire is safe for ocean swimming:        

A)        Jeans
B)        A well fitting wetsuit
C)        Rash vests or rashies
D)        Running shoes
E)        Water resistant jacket
F)        Life jacket
G)        Some stylin’togs

6. If you are at the beach with small children you should:  

A)        Make sure you stay between the red flags
B)        Always be within arms length while in the water
C)        Ask the life guard for advice on conditions and dangers
D)        Be aware of your limits

7. Most drownings in New Zealand are caused by:  

A)        Rogue waves
B)        Faulty equipment
C)        Life jacket failure
D)        Hypothermia
E)        Over confidence
F)        Storms

How a Rip Works

How a Rip Works Photo: National Weather Service, Wilmington, NC (NOAA)

"There are 3 main components to a rip current, which include the FEEDER(S), the NECK and the HEAD. As waves approach, they will break along the sandbars (shaded light blue) then finally impact the beach (shaded brown). After contacting the beach zone the water becomes trapped by the sandbars, thus finds the path of least resistance, accelerated by gravity back to the ocean. This path is usually a break between two sandbars, as shown in the diagram. The current becomes focused between the sandbars, thus increases in speed seaward. Eventually the seaward component of the rip will lose speed and disperse in the head area." (National Weather Service, Wilmington, NC (NOAA))

According to, as of 30 November this year, 84 people drowned in New Zealand. That’s up for from the same time last year. 69 of those were males, three were under 13, and 51 happened in rivers, beaches or tidal waters. Water Safety New Zealand reports that “Over the last 29 years a 60% reduction in drowning has occurred since a record high in 1985 of 214 and a record low of 87 in 2010.”

Water Safety New Zealand has a factual but chilling description of what actually happens when you drown.


Drowning and Injury Prevention Strategy

Drowning and Injury Prevention Strategy Photo: Nick Mulcahy


1. C) Spilling wave

2. A) The gravitational force of the moon

3. A) B) C) D) & E)   

4. B) C) and D)

5. B) C) E) & F)

6. A) B) C) & D)

7. E) Over Confidence is a great source for locating a beach and finding out about current conditions.