20 April 2022

Could water safety education be the key to reducing drownings?

| Zoya Patel
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Two people walking on beach

One woman drowned and a man was airlifted to Canberra after getting in trouble at Surf Beach on Easter Sunday. Photo: Destination NSW.

I was at the South Coast over Easter, just a few beaches down from where a Canberra woman tragically drowned after being caught in a rip. It was horrifying to learn of this death and, I think, quite sobering for many of us who were at the beach, enjoying the water as so many Canberrans do over holidays periods.

Even though Canberra isn’t a coastal town, the beach plays a significant role in our collective cultural life. The mass exodus on long weekends and over Christmas, with cars bearing Canberra license plates streaming over the Clyde and through Batemans Bay, shows that our proximity to the stunning beaches of the South Coast is part of the Canberra lifestyle for many.

But are we doing enough to ensure widespread water safety education across our community?

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When my family migrated to Australia, none of us knew how to swim. My parents enrolled my siblings and me in swimming lessons, and my Dad took lessons as an adult because he wanted us to enjoy the beach and be safe with at least one adult supervising who could swim.

Most Aussies who have gone through school in this country will have the basics of swimming thanks to our PE curriculum – but swimming in a pool and swimming in the ocean are two very different things.

Understanding currents and rips are vital if you’re going to swim in the ocean regularly and, while I had some basic education about beach safety at school, I can’t remember anything so comprehensive that it carried with me into adulthood.

Outside of key summer periods, lifesavers aren’t at all beaches and, over Easter, while I was at Broulee Beach, there were crowds on the sand and in the waves and no lifesavers around. It occurred to me that if an emergency did happen, we would be hard-pressed to react swiftly.

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I think water safety is as much an individual responsibility as it is a community one. But the fact is that many people aren’t aware of the risks because they simply haven’t been educated to know the impacts of rips, tides and currents on ocean swimming.

Should we have more widely promoted and easily available water safety courses? Or invest in water safety education for anyone who may not have experience with Australian beaches? Or is it just down to individual responsibility to manage their own safety in the water?

Or do we need to have lifesavers available throughout more of the year, not just at peak periods, and a larger investment to support lifesavers and volunteer lifesaving programs so resources aren’t stretched too thin?

There is an inherent risk when we enter the ocean, and unfortunately, accidents and loss of life are impossible to avoid completely. But some of these incidents could be managed with a better understanding of how to react when caught in a rip or when encountering a common issue while in the ocean.

The question might be, whose responsibility is it to make that education more accessible and widespread?

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Gail D Gillin7:02 pm 21 Apr 22

Many migrant would like to learn to swim but cost is an issue.
“Rips” and “ dangerous currents” signs in other languages is meaningless if those terms are not explained.
There used to be a “ladies only” learn to swim class in Canberra to cater for the cultural and religious sensitivities..
Does anyone know if there is one these days.
I attend hydrotherapy classes and l can assure you that there are many 50 years + women who do not know how to swim. Not all migrants either.
Swimming is one thing, learning how to respond to rips, and performing rescues is a different issues

Gail D Gillin6:39 pm 21 Apr 22

Totally agree that more education is required.
In my younger days l was swimming at Christie Beach SA. Was way out in the water. Heard a noise and saw people leaving the water. No idea why. When we came in l was asked why we didn’t get out at the alarm. I thought l had heard a knock off siren at a local factory. Turns out it was a Shark Alarm. I asked how was l to know that it was a shark alarm? No message at beach. I had carefully read their signs. I was new to swimming in the sea, having swam in dams and rivers.
Another beach and time also years ago l saw the sign “beware of rips”. Was totally meaningless as it didn’t explain what a rip was. Out of curiosity l eventually looked up “rip” ( before internet for all days). Discovered that the area of the sea that l had been swimming in was not the calm sea that l thought it was, but a rip. Sure plenty of others have done the same. I have educated myself on how to handle rips, beach etiquette over the years. Many don’t. I asked someone recently who swims in the sea regularly did they know how to respond to being caught in a rip. They had no idea. Self responsibility for adults is fine but education at teen years is probably best.

Do you watch Bondi rescue on the box? How many rescues do they film each episode, and what percentage of the lives they save are foreign tourists who have no surfing experience so no idea how dangerous the surf can be?
If they don’t speak basic English, how will they read or understand, “Dangerous currents” on a 30 x 50cm sign 2 or 3 meters above the sand?
The signs are all in English, so they don’t even know that it’s a warning till after they are rescued. (On Bondi rescue, most of the people saved have entered the water at “Backpackers Rip” within meters of the warning sign.)
Visually arresting signs, with cartoon-like images, bigger, and at lower levels so they cannot be missed, and can even be understood by children, would surely have some impact on the statistics. Multi-lingual signs near the entry ramps, where the coaches drop the tour groups, might be another lifesaver. For many overseas tourists, their visit to a Aussie surf beach might be a once-in-a-lifetime event; it shouldn’t be their last one!

ChrisinTurner1:40 pm 21 Apr 22

Even in a classroom kids can be taught how to recognise a rip.

Unfortunately education and awareness raising only can go so far. Even those that can swim always think they are better swimmers than they are, leading to people being caught in rips. Despite the great work of lifesavers, they are an ‘insurance policy’ at patrolled beaches and there will always be people wanting their isolated swim or drunken frolic on a lonely beach. I did my Royal Life Saving Bronze Star in my early twenties (1982) all of which was in a pool and not open surf, and that gives you the basics. You have to know your limits. People will continue drown no matter what you try to do to stop them doing dumb things.

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