Water safety boss alarmed after tragic drowning toll last summer

1:32 pm on 28 December 2022
Summer in Eastbourne, Wellington.

Summer in Eastbourne, Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Up to two-thirds of the country's drownings occur in summer and given the toll already this year "alarm bells are ringing", says a leading safety advocate.

So far this year, 90 people have died in drownings that could have been prevented, four more than the same time last year.

Three people have died in separate water incidents in the North Island earlier this week.

Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Daniel Gerrard told RNZ earlier this month: "It is tracking to be another horrendous year for drownings. Eighty is the 10-year average; 2021 was 90 fatalities and 76 were male, the worst year since 2011.

"We live in such an amazing environment and of course people can take some risks and set themselves challenges but they need to know the risks and what they're capable of and still come home."

Gerrard said last year's toll of 90 deaths was "a national disgrace".

The recent drowning of a mother and son in Manukau Harbour deeply affected the small number of staff at Water Safety NZ, Gerrard said.

With between half to two-thirds of drownings taking place over the three months of summer, he was feeling "very nervous" of what might lie ahead.

"The alarm bells are ringing."

His organisation has analysed the figures from last summer and found there were increases in every age group across all demographics and locations and with every activity.

This has made it harder to decide on solutions. However, overwhelmingly the figures continue to show the majority of deaths were men.

Over the past 10 years, 89 percent of fatal beach drownings in Aotearoa New Zealand have been male.

"Specifically, older men behaving badly," Gerrard said.

In an open letter to men in November, he pleaded with them to take better care in the water.

"To Pākehā males in power boats, Māori men gathering kai underwater, Asian men fishing from rocks, Pasifika men fishing from boats ... you guys are consistently over-represented in our drowning tragedies.

"It is blatantly obvious that Kiwis are underestimating their risks whilst in, on and around the water."

Gerrard said the Covid-19 pandemic put the brakes on overseas travel so as a result, boat purchases increased sharply.

However, there has not been a corresponding rise in Coastguard membership or participants in courses.

"We're concerned that means an upsurge of people not qualified out on the water."

Nearly half of the 22 people who died in recreational boat incidents last year were not wearing lifejackets, even though one was available to them.

The law at present stipulates lifejackets must be available for each person on a boat.

Life-jackets in speed boat against the sea. Clouse up

Lifejackets must be provided but don't have to be worn. Photo: 123RF

Surveys have shown 93 percent of New Zealanders supported the law being tightened so wearing lifejackets becomes compulsory on a boat that is less than 6 metres; 90 percent of boaties also supported the proposal, he said.

However, so far the government has not acted on requests to change the law - frustrating those such as Gerrard who try and promote water safety.

"There is no reason for politicians not to respond to this."

He said it was the next step in legislation after the fencing of domestic swimming pools became mandatory, which has helped reduce the number of children drowning.

As for why older men will equip their families and mates with lifejackets but not themselves, Gerrard believed a generation of men had grown up and survived some risk-taking over many years, such as diving into rivers and the misuse of alcohol so felt they were "bulletproof".

Working on marae

Of the 90 fatalities last year, Māori accounted for 28 deaths.

Gerard said many of these occurred in the Far North in isolated communities difficult to connect with.

Kai gathering was a major cause and social issues were contributing, he said.

"People are needing to put food on the table and taking risks and going out in conditions they shouldn't be.

"It is challenging when you are talking about a climate of desperation."

However, as part of a more targeted approach Water Safety NZ has begun working on marae with kaupapa so that programmes can be offered that are for Māori run by Māori.

Dive-based training has begun and kaupapa were also being trained to ask the right questions around boat maintenance, weather conditions and having appropriate gear and licences.

"We are hopeful that behaviour change will start to filter through."

Reaching the kids

The 'Swim it Forward' campaign was rolled out in Aotearoa in November with the hope people will donate via a Give-a-Little page the average cost of one swimming lesson at a swim school, which is about $20.

Gerrard said a similar campaign was "hugely successful" in Australia.

The Water Skills for Life that has been running for a decade teaching hundreds of thousands of youngsters to swim has also been relaunched.

"It's Ground Zero for us".

Water safety training

File pic Photo: Supplied

He said while schools must provide "aquatic experiences" for primary and intermediate school pupils, the emphasis needed to be more on surviving difficult situations and especially being able to float for a long period.

He was hoping to see this change made as part of lobbying during the current curriculum review.

Gerrard believed the country needed to do much better at the preventative side of water safety. Surf life-saving clubs and the Coastguard provided excellent rescue services, however, the government was not providing enough for education.

"Behaviour change has to be the long-term project - we've got to get that part right."

No caption

Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

Gerrard offered this advice for everyone venturing into the water this summer:

  • Be prepared - know the conditions.
  • Watch out both for your own safety and others, especially children.
  • Recognise the dangers and be prepared for risks to change day-to-day.
  • Know your limits - don't overestimate your ability.

Other safety tips:

  • Choose a beach with lifeguards and swim between the red and yellow flags.
  • Watch out for rip currents.
  • If caught in a rip, remember the 3R's: Relax and float, Raise your hand and Ride the rip.
  • Read and understand the safety signs.
  • Ask a surf lifeguard for advice as beach conditions can change regularly.
  • Always keep a very close eye on young children in or near the water.
  • Get a friend to swim, surf or fish with you.
  • When rock fishing, always wear a lifejacket and shoes with grip.
  • Ensure everyone on a boat is wearing their lifejacket.
  • If in doubt, stay out of the water.
  • If you see someone in trouble in the water, call 111.

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