In the past decade 360 people have ventured out to our beaches and never returned home – and sadly the number of people drowning continues to rise each year.
A new report out today reveals 42 people lost their lives on the coast last year, nearly a quarter of whom were out swimming or wading in the water.
The Surf Life Saving National Beach and Coastal Safety report found beach and coastal-related fatal drownings have climbed almost 20 per cent in the last five years with the country’s 10-year average now almost 50 per cent greater than Australia’s per capita.
An overwhelming majority of the victims – 87 per cent – are male and most are over the age of 35. This demographic is known among the water safety sector for over exaggerating their skills and underestimating the risks.
“I’ve never pulled a body out of the water with a life jacket on,” said lifeguard of almost 40 years, Allan Mundy. He has been involved in countless body recoveries during his time at Omanu Beach, east of Mount Maunganui.
“They go out in their middle ages thinking ‘Man, I’m still fit as a fiddle.’ They might have swimming skill, but skill is only good for a few seconds. Swimming fitness allows you to keep your head above the water, and if you don’t have swimming fitness you have nothing – you’re no better than a non-swimmer.”
Over exaggeration of water skills can be life-threatening to anyone.
Confident swimmer and West Auckland local Renae Samson and her partner had to be rescued by lifeguards off Muriwai beach. She told the Herald during a fundraising campaign last summer that she thought she knew the beach like the back of her hand.
“I got comfortable. I was like ‘I know this beach like the back of my hand, I know everything about this beach’. Don’t get comfortable because at the end of the day it’s mother nature – don’t mess with that.”
The report found the number of deaths caused by watercraft, snorkelling, boating and fishing are on the rise.
Water Safety New Zealand Water Skills for Life spokesperson Sheridan Bruce said there has also been an increase in kai gathering, resulting in more underwater diving and rock fishing incidents.
“Primarily young males aged 15-34 that tend to get into trouble swimming, and it tends to be older males getting into trouble in their boats and underwater diving,” she said.
Surf Life Saving chief executive Paul Dalton believes increased access to water toys is another contributor to the spike.
“There’s new craft; stand up paddle boards, motorised surf boards, jet skis, so we’re seeing more ways to enjoy the water which is fantastic, but the challenge is still to do it safely,” he said.
Dalton and Bruce agree one solution would be for sellers of water craft, such as a kayaks, to also supply a life jacket or personal locator beacon or offer boating education for larger craft.
Meanwhile, Mundy has seen how effective targeted advertisements have been with Fire and Emergency messaging around using smoke alarms, and how this could be used to promote water safety.
“Middle-aged men watch the news, but the number of aquatic safety messaging in mass media around that time slot is hardly any… and that’s because it’s way too expensive,” he told the Herald.
A new five-year, sector-wide water safety strategy launched on Thursday, with an emphasis on a Māori-based model.
In the past decade, Pacific Peoples recorded the highest average fatal drowning rate per 100,000 people than any other ethnicity, closely followed by Māori.
University of Otago researcher Chanel Phillips who designed the Wai Puna model, said it’s about Māori reconnecting to their cultural and spiritual connection to the water.
“I do think our high drowning rates today is because a lot of water safety training is solely on water skills and competency and that’s only part of bigger picture,” she said.
“We do need to do a lot better for our Pacific brothers and sisters as well, this should be key for the sector.”
The Water Skills for Life training programme in schools is aiming to move from the pool to the beach as part of the strategy, to provide children with more “authentic” skills.
“We’ve got the long-term plan; if we educate children now we can change their attitudes so when they are adults we’ve got that generational change,” said Bruce.
-18 per cent increase in coastal fatal drownings in the last five years, compared with the previous five years.
-NZ’s 10-year average of fatal drowning rates are 48 per cent higher, per capita, than Australia’s.
-87 per cent of fatal drownings between 2010-2020 are male.
– 42 people drowned last year
-The greatest risk activities have been swimming, boating and falls.