In the late afternoon of January 4, 2009, New Zealand Warriors back-rower Sonny Fai drowned at Bethells Beach while saving his 13-year-old brother. Fai's body was never found; his brother made it to shore safely.
Three years later, 54-year-old Peter Apaapa drowned while rescuing his son and nephew, who got into trouble collecting pipi at Te Puna beach in Tauranga. The children, assisted by Apappa, made their way back to shallow water unharmed.
On November 4 last year, as family members gathered in Hawke's Bay to celebrate a wedding, Sage Smith, 22, and his nephew, 7-year-old Kustom Blandford, drowned during a desperate attempt to save Kustom's sister, Ocean, from the surf at Iwitea beach. Ocean survived.
Rescuers are losing their lives while saving a drowning person - often a relative - with tragic frequency in New Zealand. Between 1980 and 2012, 81 people drowned while attempting a rescue. The phenomenon is so widespread it is referred to as aquatic victim-instead-of-rescuer, or AVIR, syndrome.
In 2012 alone, six New Zealanders drowned while performing a rescue - they include 15-year-old Zebedee Pua, who lost his life as he helped a young girl to shore at O'Neills Beach on Auckland's west coast, and 59-year-old Peter Lewis who drowned while trying to save his dog from an Auckland lake.
The situation is similar in Australia, where between 1992 and 2010, 103 people drowned while attempting to save a life. In three-quarters of these cases, the person they had been attempting to rescue survived.
What can be done to prevent rescuers sacrificing their lives has proven a dilemma for water safety experts. The challenges are twofold - not only are we wired from a young age to act altruistically in these sorts of life-and-death situations, but we have a tendency to overestimate our ability in the water, while underestimating the danger it poses.
Equally perplexingly to understand is why the person being rescued so often survives when their rescuer does not.
John Pearn, senior paediatrician at Royal Children's Hospital in Brisbane, and Richard Franklin, senior research fellow at the Royal Lifesaving Society in Australia, pioneered study into AVIR syndrome and are authors of The Impulse to Rescue. They explain our altruistic impulses are learned primarily in childhood and further reinforced in adult life.
"Every society lauds altruism and courage. In the British Commonwealth, nations bestow their highest accolades, the Victoria Cross and the George Cross, upon those who attempt to save the lives of others in the face of mortal risk."
This "rescue impulse" is particularly strong, they say, when it comes to family. "It is a case of ‘blood being thicker than water'," explains psychologist Sara Chatwin, who says when emotional and family connections are coupled with the need to act, the driving force becomes greater and more urgent.
Pearn and Franklin believe we must accept it is virtually impossible to counter the reflex to rescue. Instead, they say, we should focus our energy on giving people the skills they need to perform a rescue safely.
"It's important to recognise no trained lifeguard would ever perform a rescue without a flotation device," says Teresa Stanley of WaterSafe Auckland. This is because a drowning person will instinctively clutch at and even push underwater their would-be saviour.
Alongside swimming lessons, all children and parents should be learning basic water safety skills, including the ability to rescue others without putting themselves in danger, Stanley believes.
We need to be promoting non-contact rescues using buoyancy aids, she says. This can include trying to reach a person from a safe place on land using a tree branch, throwing a rope, life preserver or improvised buoyancy aid, and as a last resort attempting a rescue on a surfboard or paddle craft.
This is often referred to as the Reach, Throw, Row approach.
Dr Kevin Moran, a principal lecturer at the University of Auckland, has spent more than a decade researching New Zealanders' behaviour and attitudes around water.
The co-author of Readiness to Rescue: Bystander Perceptions of Their Capacity to Respond in a Drowning Emergency, he explains rescue skills have traditionally been taught within the swimming and lifesaving component of schools' physical education syllabus.
However, he says little effort has been put into assessing whether this syllabus has properly equipped the public to engage in safe rescues.
A nationwide water safety survey of New Zealand youth, published in 2008, found one third considered they had no rescue ability, and more than half expressed doubts about their ability to perform a surf rescue.
Moran recently surveyed people gathered at the annual Pasifika Festival, asking how they would react if they saw someone struggling in the water. The findings - detailed in Readiness to Rescue - are concerning. Only 30 per cent of those surveyed said they would try to get a flotation device to a victim, and almost half indicated they would jump in and attempt a rescue. This included more than one third who reported they could not swim 100 metres.
"This suggests the least-capable would-be rescuers may be at greater risk of drowning by failing to recognise their limitations."
Alarmingly, says Moran, the least frequently indicated response, using a flotation device, would be the best course of action in most open water situations.
While public rescue equipment is not as prevalent in New Zealand as in some other countries, WaterSafe Auckland has been working to install rescue buoyancy aids in high-risk areas, Stanley says.
"For the last five years we have installed Angel Rings on Auckland's West Coast to promote safety for rock fishers," Stanley says. "These have already been used successfully to save fishers washed off the rocks. There are now some around the Auckland waterfront as well."
B UT IF preventing rescuers from drowning requires a realistic understanding of human behaviour, alongside better education, including the promotion of non-contact rescues skills, it doesn't answer the question of why the primary victim - the person who needed saving - so often survives when their rescuer does not.
The most commonly held theory is that people are exhausting themselves while attempting to reach and support struggling swimmers, who then push their rescuer underwater in an involuntary effort to stay afloat.
New research into rip currents, responsible for the majority of drowning incidents on our beaches, may also provide clues. Picture a rip current, and chances are you'll envisage a long plume of water, rolling out to sea.
However, this conventional view of a rip has been shaken up in recent years by the work of oceanography professor Jamie MacMahan, from the Naval Postgraduate School in California.
By placing floating GPS units in rips and tracking their progress on a laptop, MacMahan discovered the currents more closely resemble whirlpools that circulate through the surf.
His research concluded if you tread water "there's a 90 per cent chance of being returned to shore within about three minutes". His experiments with GPS trackers have since been repeated in New Zealand, with similar results. This may explain why rescuers who tire themselves supporting a struggling swimmer drown before the initial victim is circulated safely back to shallow water.
Of course, not all bystander rescues result in tragedy. On February 3 last year, Pukekohe father-of-four Brendon Pooley saved two men from the surf at Kariotahi beach. Pooley was preparing to leave the beach with his wife and children at around 7.30pm when he was approached by a panicked teenager. Two of the teen's friends had been swept out to sea in a rip.
Pooley's first response was to send for help. His wife drove to the top of a hill to find reception on her phone and contacted emergency services. Pooley meanwhile entered the water with one of his children's bodyboards. After 20 minutes searching in the dark he was able to reach the missing men. One was able to make his own way back to shore, while Pooley assisted the second exhausted man using his bodyboard as flotation.
Ultimately, ensuring more rescuers such as Pooley survive means arming New Zealanders with the knowledge and critical thinking skills required to make correct decisions around water, Stanley says.
Caleb Starrenburg is a freelance writer and member of Bethells Beach Surf Life Saving Patrol in Auckland
- Sunday Star Times
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