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Turning the Tide on Drowning

Sarah Cates16 January 2018

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In October 2017 Hawke’s Bay swimming legend John Beaumont died, a man who had committed his life to swimming.

Countless numbers of Havelock North children were taught how to swim under his – some would say – ‘rough love’ but very successful method of swimming. John was admired. So respected, the Havelock North Function Centre could barely accommodate the number of mourners who came to pay their final respects to him.

During the funeral many messages were read aloud. One stood out, a woman who spoke with a clear confidence. She said “Thank you, John, for teaching me how to save my own life. When I was a child I got caught in a rip at the ocean. I was scared but I heard your voice. “Get on your back! Look up at the sky, relax, let the water take you and think of me!”

The lady did not fight the ocean, she remembered John’s words. Thanks to John she survived, and is here to tell the tale.

Unfortunately, many are not.

We love our water. A high number of kiwis participate in water based activities utilising our abundance of rivers, lakes, beaches and pools. On average, each year 3 million people visit beaches, 1.1 million people participate in swimming activities, 630,000 people go fishing and there are over 20 million visits to public swimming pools.

But our love for the water does not make us competent swimmers and many of us find ourselves in trouble at one stage or another. Drowning is the fourth highest cause of accidental death in New Zealand after motor vehicle accidents, falls, and poisoning.

Water Safety New Zealand’s (WSNZ) DrownBase for 2016 recorded a total number of 107 deaths from drowning. seventy eight of these were preventable. Key findings in the 2016 WSNZ Drowning Prevention Report showed fatalities are highest in males between the ages of 15-25 – 67 of the 78 preventable drownings occurred in this group. Three pre-schoolers were lost and there was a 55% increase in fatalities (based on a five year average, 2011-2015) in the 45-54 year old bracket. This is the highest since 2009.

A further 1,200 deaths were prevented through rescues. 2016 currently rates as the highest year for hospitalisations since the records began in 2003, with 207 people needing medical attention as a result of a non-fatal drowning incident. The waters of Hawke’s Bay claimed six lives and five hospitalisations. New Zealand has one of the highest drowning rates per capita in the OECD, twice that of Australia.

As of the 4 December 2017 the preventable drowning toll for this year stands at 73; that’s five more fatalities than this time in 2016.

Stay between the flags

Michael Bassett-Foss is a board member for Water Safety New Zealand. Michael, also being a life-long, dedicated member and past-president of Surf Life Saving New Zealand, is passionate about reaching the goals set in the Water Safety Sector Strategy 2020.

This strategy was developed collectively by organisations within the water safety sector to address New Zealand’s drowning problem. Its key aims are to halve preventable male drownings, reduce the number of preventable drownings to 50 fewer, reduce the number of hospitalisations to 100 fewer, and bring the number of pre-schooler drownings down to zero, by 2020.

Michael says, “It’s the kiwi psyche. We like to seek out those less busy places. Those secluded areas, away from the crowds. And we are lucky in New Zealand, we have many beautiful beaches, rivers and lakes. But when we find those places, we classically overestimate our swimming ability and underestimate the drowning risk.”

“The majority of people think they can handle the conditions. 85% of hospitalisations from beaches occur from getting yourself in trouble in and around rips. Just because you can swim it doesn’t necessarily mean you can save yourself in the water. It has been proven that swimming between the flags prevents drownings! In 126 years or so of Surf Life Savers there has not been one. It’s a proven formula!”

However, as Michael says, it’s not the kiwi way to stay between the flags.

He continues, “We have some of the world’s leading research into drowning prevention coming out of New Zealand. I have just returned from the World Conference on Drowning Prevention where the latest international research and thinking on drowning prevention and lifesaving was discussed. I was fortunate enough to be the New Zealand delegate.

“The overarching message that came from this convention and previous conventions is prevention. We have to work on ensuring all our children have the practical water skills to be able to save themselves and others, should they find themselves in trouble. But equally important is educating them in how not to get in trouble in the first place and recognising when they’re in trouble.

“It is evident that just being able to swim 200 metres freestyle in a pool does not mean you have the skills to survive in rivers and cold open water, which is where most drownings occur. Based on these findings, we have introduced a new initiative in swimming tuition that teaches our kids a combination of water safety and swimming skills.”

The thinking behind swimming has changed. Research across New Zealand showed that our traditional ‘Learn to Swim’ programmes were inadequate in teaching our kids the necessary skills required for drowning prevention. The new initiative, ‘Water Skills for Life’ (WSFL), places a greater emphasis on teaching water safety skills stroke and distance skills.

WSNZ, Swim New Zealand (SNZ), and Sport’s Hawkes Bay have collaborated to provide funding and support to schools to deliver the Water Skills for Life program to all Hawke’s Bay children.

Water Skills for Life

Karen Dalldorf is Hawke’s Bay’s Education Adviser for SNZ. She says, “Basic aquatic skills have been steadily declining in our kiwi kids over the past few years. WSFL is designed to ensure we build the basic aquatic skills for our kids to enjoy the water safely. Pooled funds enable us to provide schools with training.

“I teach the school teachers how to deliver the WSFL program in their own school pools and provide ongoing support. This includes classroom-based activities to encourage critical thinking in water safety and awareness. This includes safe decision making and recognising an emergency. This element needs to be worked on, developed and constantly refreshed. 70% of our schools in Hawke’s Bay still have their pool. This gives the children a huge advantage as they get more time in the water to build their confidence and basic swimming skills.”

For schools that no longer have their pools, funding is available for the children to participate in 10 lessons at a local pool. Karen continues, “There are 23 schools in Hawke’s Bay that do not have a pool. To counteract this SNZ is training swimming instructors to deliver the program in public pools. These lessons, and transport to and from the pool, are funded. I have had a 100% uptake from the schools, it’s a great programme. I am looking forward to seeing some really positive changes. In some cases it’s literally ‘zero to hero!”

Karen is confident that the WSFL programme will help create a culture in which every New Zealander will understand the risks associated with being in and around water and will have the ability to survive in all aquatic environments.

Boating safety

This is a culture Hawkes Bay’s Harbour Master Martin Moore is passionate about cultivating. One of Martin’s many duties as Harbour Master is to ensure that we stay safe in all the recreational boating activities that take place in our region’s rivers and along our coast line. This includes kayaking, row boats, sailing boats, waka ama, paddle boards, dinghies, jet skis etc.

Martin spends a lot of his time educating people about navigation and safety, but he has a special fondness for the Safe Boating in Schools Programme. This is a highly successful interactive and fun programme which is run at no cost to schools, afterschool care centres, and more recently community and church groups. Throughout the year Martin can interact with around 1,800 children. Martin is often seen at boat ramps and boating events talking to people about being safe on the water.

Martin says, “There are many positive synergies with what we deliver and what WSNZ has introduced. It’s really about connecting with our communities and finding the best way to effectively deliver safety programmes so they reach everybody, in a way they may understand. We have diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups in Hawke’s Bay. A high number of drownings occur in the lower socioeconomic groups, ethnic minorities and in our rural communities. We need to reach all these people.”

Boating accidents claim the second highest number of lives. Of those who drowned in a boating incident, 73% were not wearing life jackets. “This is our huge push to the kids!” Martin continues, “Life jackets save lives! Most people I meet and talk to are trying to do the right thing, but I often come across families where the children are wearing life jackets but the parents are not. Frequently the life jackets can be the wrong size, not secured properly, and not fit for purpose. We hope that wearing the correct life jacket will become as natural as putting your seat belt on or wearing a cycle helmet. By going out and educating the kids in a fun way we hope the message gets back to the families the kids actually go out on the water with.”

Martin’s programme consists of a comprehensive dry land session that covers all the essential information for a safe boating experience. The kids learn extensively about life jackets, how to signal for help, the importance of good trip planning and preparation and overall safety on a boat. Martin adds, “This is where some of the synergies can happen. We can deliver the dry land session, which can then be backed up with a pool or open water session. This way, the kids get to really test out the importance of life jackets and how different they feel in the water compared to dry land.”

The WSFL programme includes a pool-based life jacket session where the kids learn what to do in the event of a capsized boat or falling overboard. They learn how to work as a team, organise themselves in a huddle, how to move through the water together, the best way to keep warm and the importance of keeping a positive morale. Much of this is done with the instructors spraying the kids with a high pressure hose and creating waves in the water!

On the beach

As much as the swim instructors try to create a ‘real life’ experience, the reality is that cold open water is completely different from a controlled safe environment of a public swimming pool. Louise Basset-Foss is the self-confessed ‘Surf Mother’ of Surf Life Saving (SLS) based at Waimarama Beach. “I did my first patrol on Christmas day when I was 10 days old, I am literally in it for life!” Louise beams.

The second highest number of fatalities in 2016 occurred on beaches. A high percentage of these involved getting caught in rips. A rip is a strong current caused by water from breaking waves flowing back to sea through channels in the sand. This current can easily pull swimmers out to sea. The location of rips changes.

Louise comments, “We have great beaches in Hawke’s Bay. Most of which are relatively safe for swimming as long as you are careful, follow beach safety messages and consider potential risks. Surf Life Savers patrol West Shore, Marine Parade, Ocean Beach and Waimarama. Equally beautiful, but un-patrolled beaches in our region are Tangoio, Waipatiki, Haumoana and Te Awanga, and Clifton.”

“Drowning is a complex problem. We have so many varying degrees of knowledge and attitudes surrounding water, and this coupled with a changing environment, unpredictable weather patterns, and throwing youth and alcohol into the mix, you have a recipe for disaster.”

The SLS community is a strong one with many life-long dedicated families passing their skills on from parent to child. Waimarama Surf Club has retained its numbers really well and has the continuous support of the community. This enables the club to confidently provide the best service to all Waimarama Beach goers and train its surf life savers to the highest standards.

Louise adds, “The craziest things our surf life savers see usually involve young men, fully clothed, and alcohol. Frequently these men have not even planned to go swimming. Many fatalities are caused by immersion incidents where the person had no intention of being in the water. Unattended children is also fairly common. We have to remind beach goers that we are not babysitters! Sometimes parents, particularly if they are visiting and staying in one of the rentals beach-side do not know the risks. Our community in Waimarama is great though! We all look out for each other and our visitors.”

Louise is concerned about our high school students. She explains, “Currently high schools do not receive any funding towards swimming tuition or water safety skills if they have a pool. Some funds are available to high schools if they do not have a school pool to get students into the water. However, you need a supportive board and a motivated teacher to make this happen. Schools need to fight for their pools! But without a committed board, they will go.”

As the PE teacher for Napier Girls, Louise has long supported and advocated for compulsory swimming tuition and time spent in the water. She says “Many of our girls, in particular our Maori and Pacific Island girls, have had no formal swimming lessons. These take time, money and commitment. Families on low incomes rely on schools to provide this. These girls don’t even own a pair of togs and are used to ‘river swimming’ in shorts and a T-shirt.”

Louise feels really lucky as Napier Girls has a very supportive principal and governing board. They run varied swimming programmes, including one aimed at international students, who are frequently terrified of water. Many of their students patrol the beaches of Hawke’s Bay during their holidays and weekends and are competitive swimmers.

Louise rounds off, “The learning our girls receive from being surf life savers is priceless. I would love to get more young people involved, but it takes parental commitment and money. It is expensive to patrol beaches, we have huge insurances, paid lifeguards and training costs to cover. It would have a dramatic impact on the safety of those who visit our beaches if Surf Life Saving to go.”

Hawke’s Bay is a beautiful waterland. We have a plethora of rivers, and a stunning coastline. During the weekends we flock to our watery sanctuaries to relax, train, swim, boat, go fishing, and have fun. We want to keep it this way. Safety forourselves, families, friends and those who visit Hawke’s Bay is paramount.

Like the woman who thanked John Beaumont for literally saving her life, learn about the risks, learn to how to be safe, and learn how to survive. And importantly, live it.

Sarah Cates16 January 2018

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