OPINION: A week before Christmas, Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Matt Claridge called for a zero holiday drowning toll.
Given the fact that hundreds of thousands of Kiwis were about to flock to the beaches, rivers and lakes for the traditional summer break, it was, perhaps, a forlorn hope, but he nearly got his wish.
The three drownings that occurred during the holiday period was the lowest Christmas-New Year toll for six years. However, as Mr Claridge noted, it was also three deaths too many.
Had it not been for the high number of rescues carried out by lifeguards at beaches around New Zealand, scores involving swimmers taking unnecessary risks, the toll could have been much higher. The fickle weather in some areas may also have helped keep the number of drownings well below the Christmas-New Year average of 10.
Sadly, one of the deaths included a swimmer who failed to observe a basic safety rule while bathing in the ocean. Jason Johns, 43, was just 60 metres from a flagged area when he got into difficulty at Coromandel's Whiritoa Beach on Christmas Eve. Surf lifesavers had been walking towards him to advise him to move to safety, but could not reach him in time or revive him once he was pulled from the water.
Jarrett Simeon, who drowned at Manawatu's Himatangi Beach on Saturday, two days after the holiday period ended, was also outside the flags when he was caught in a fierce rip. He and his girlfriend, Morgan McKay, who was saved by two friends and a surfer, had been swimming 800 metres away from the area patrolled by lifeguards on a beach described by police as notorious for drownings.
If anything positive can come from the deaths of Mr Johns and Mr Simeon, it is that they will drive home the importance of swimming between the flags. Flagged areas signify more than simply the presence of surf-lifesavers. They also indicate the areas experienced lifeguards have judged the safest for swimming.
Yet astonishingly, large numbers of swimmers ignore such an important and well-known safety message, either because they want to swim away from the crowds or they have a misguided belief in their capabilities in the water.
On the day that Mr Simeon died, lifeguards at Taylors Mistake Beach near Christchurch pulled 28 people out of the water. Twenty-six had been swimming outside the flags and the other two were rescued after lifeguards had closed the beach because of the dangerous conditions.
Other advice issued by Water Safety New Zealand is equally important. It includes learning to swim, keeping children within reach, knowing your limits and avoiding alcohol. Boaties should also check weather reports, watch conditions and wear lifejackets.
New Zealand has an appalling rate of drownings, third only to Finland and Brazil per head of population.
In 2011, 123 people drowned in New Zealand. Provisional figures for 2012 suggest the number was about 90. While that was an improvement on the year before, it was still 90 deaths too many.
- © Fairfax NZ News