Turning the tide

HELEN HARVEY
Last updated 16:14 20/10/2012
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Surf Lifesaving New Zealand club development officer Andy Cronin

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This weekend traditionally signals the start of summer and people start thinking of the heading to the beach. Safety in the water is a message some people ignore. Helen Harvey reports.

Summer is coming and with it comes swimming, boating, kayaking, surfing, water skiing and all the water sports Kiwis love to take part in.

However, with the fun comes an element of danger.

Last year, Taranaki was the only region in the country with no drownings.

This year the toll stands at five and December, one of the riskiest months, is still to come.

Along the way there have been a few close calls: a boogie boarder was hauled from the surf in a bad way in May and in April six or seven people were rescued from rips at Fitzroy Beach within a week.

It's not only Fitzroy Beach. There were two incidents at Back Beach earlier in the year.

In April, a man was pulled out of the water unconscious after getting in to trouble in a heavy swell. In January there was a happy ending for a fisherman who was swept off the rocks at the same beach.

Last summer, Taranaki lifeguards made 36 rescues.

Surf Lifesaving New Zealand club development officer Andy Cronin says there are various reasons people get into trouble at the beach. Often they aren't properly equipped and wear clothes when they go swimming, they might not be aware of the hazards or where the rips are and some don't have the right skills.

"We encourage people to stay within their limits. If they're not sure, they shouldn't go out. Generally, we're pretty fortunate in Taranaki. By and large, people do stay within their limits and swim where life guards are patrolling.

"If there are no lifeguards on or it's outside patrol hours, then it is really important to stay within your limits and to have someone with you."

According to Water Safety New Zealand statistics, 57 per cent of the people who drowned in Taranaki were alone at the time.

Swimming with someone is really important, Cronin says, and children should always be supervised by their parents or caregivers, even when swimming between the flags.

"That means standing at the water's edge, as opposed to being up in the sand dunes reading a book."

Taranaki is fortunate there isn't a high number of drownings in the region, Cronin says.

"All our surf beaches are quite a dynamic environment, so they all have rips and holes and bits and pieces that can cause difficulty. Beaches are only dangerous if you swim in the wrong spot and don't have the skills to get yourself out."

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Fitzroy is highly used, which means the risk goes up.

Fitzroy, Back Beach and Oakura are all high energy, so they all can be dangerous, but they are also lot of fun. It's a tricky balance, he says.

"We really push the education message so people learn how to recognise rips, and they learn the safe way to have fun."

The good news is that in the past two decades the number of people who have drowned in New Zealand has fallen by 45 per cent.

However, on average 130 people still drown every year - drowning is the third highest cause of accidental death, behind car crashes and falls - and as at October 9, 74 people had drowned in 2012.

As well as lives lost, there is the financial cost. ACC figures estimate the annual social and economic costs of drowning to be $313.2 million.

ACC collects claim data on eight water sports - boating, fishing, kayaking, surfing, swimming, underwater diving, waterskiing and windsurfing. The five-year average for these claims (about 18,800 claims a year) equals $34 million a year for the ACC scheme.

Most people in New Zealand grow up near the water, yet our water safety record is not good. Per head of population, we have twice the number of drownings Australia has and three times those of the United States and Britain.

There are various reasons for this, says Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Matt Claridge.

Geographically, all Kiwis have easy access to the water and the water is typically fast moving or there is a lot of it.

"That, combined with cultural issues and a strong inclination for Kiwis to be active around water means we have a higher drowning toll than other developed countries.

"You think of Australia - it's bronzed bodies on the beach - and they have access to water like we do, but they have a different culture around children learning to swim.

"Kids at school do learn to swim in Australia, but here we have a few challenges around that."

The curriculum doesn't stipulate children must learn to swim, but there is the Sealord Swim for Life campaign which had 128,000 children in the water for the year ended June.

In New Zealand there is a high rate of preschool drownings, along with a higher rate of males drowning as a result of gathering kai, he says.

"So there is a very different motivation to go fishing or diving, and that is to put food on the table.

"Often the decision-making process isn't always about safety. It's: 'We've got to serve dinner. We've got a tangi. We need some kai.' Hence some of the safety steps might get missed."

There is also the staunch Kiwi attitude that maybe life jackets aren't really needed.

"We're talking about 800,000 boats and we end up with 16 to 18 drownings a year.

"It is the minority who end up creating attention, but our role is to eliminate drownings and changing attitudes is the first place we can look to have an impact."

More and more boaties are taking to the water off the Taranaki coastline, especially off New Plymouth, Waitara and Urenui.

The number of kayakers is also growing, Taranaki Coastguard president Graham Cowling says.

"The biggest thing is to wear your life jacket. We keep plugging that message. The law says the skipper has to carry one for every person on the boat."

Also, carry both a cellphone and a VHF radio, Cowley says, and write a trip report.

The Coastguard encourages people to join a club - either boating or kayaking - to get the benefit of other people's experience.

Local experience is useful in Urenui and Waitara when boaties are thinking of going over a bar.

"Urenui is two hours before and after high tide and Waitara is three hours either side of high tide - the time you have good navigable water through the entrance.

"If you are going over a bar, put lifejackets on and make sure everything is stowed below. If locals are not using the bar, there is usually a good reason for it."

Watch the weather too, he says.

"The conditions we get first thing in the morning from 6 until 8 or 9 o'clock are very settled, until such time as the air temperature starts to heat up and the wind gets up.

"It can change within half an hour and if you are not prepared, it can catch you out very easily."

The conditions can trick a boatie just like rips can catch a swimmer unawares.

But recognising rips can be difficult, says New Plymouth oceanographer Dr Peter McComb.

"If it's windy, you won't always see the rip, because the wind chops can mask the presence of the rip. In lighter winds, you can usually see the ruffled water of the rip."

Rips are mostly formed where there is a gradient in wave energy.

"That can happen for various reasons and each beach has slightly different rip-generation mechanisms. Each beach and tidal stage has dangers that go with it."

The rip that caught the man who drowned at Fitzroy Beach in January was generated by groups of long-period ground swell, he says.

"In stormy conditions, the waves are usually jumbled up, so dynamic rip circulation systems may not form because the energy is distributed across the beach."

But during clean swell conditions, such as a rising long-period ground swell from the Southern Ocean, the waves tend to focus at areas on the beach, plus become grouped together in packets - four or five large waves and then 20 or so smaller waves.

"These sets of waves are really good at sparking up a rip cell.

"Someone can go down to the beach and look out at the sea and say, 'Oh, it's not very big and there are no rips and no evidence of any danger whatsoever'.

"That's exactly what happened the evening the chap drowned. I was down at the beach a bit earlier. You enter the water and then a group of waves comes through and they are much, much larger than all the previous waves and they occur in a very small localised area."

He likens it to ringing a bell. "You push all this energy at the beach responds by rapidly forming a rip current, which might be only 20 metres wide or even less.

The waves have gone, but the rip is still there because the water level is relaxing back to an equilibrium position."

Even one hour beforehand, there may not have been such a problem, because the tide level can change the wave patterns and therefore the rip dynamics.

During a certain tidal stage, a beach can quickly become a problematic danger zone, but the average swimmer can't be expected to know that.

Without doubt, it is a real challenge for the lifeguards to recognise and anticipate problematic events, he says.

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TARANAKI BY THE NUMBERS 2007-2010: 14 drownings.

2011: No drownings.

2012 to date: Five drownings.

57 per cent while person alone;

36 per cent in rivers; 29 per cent at beaches;

64 per cent male;

57 per cent aged 14-55. Data source: Water Safety New Zealand DrownBase

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WHAT TO DO: IDENTIFYING FEATURES OF A RIP: Calm patches in the surf with waves breaking on either side.

Rippled or criss-cross water.

Discoloured water because of sand stirring. Foamy water with debris.

TO ESCAPE FROM A RIP CURRENT: Swim across to the nearest breaking waves.

Don't panic. Swim to the side. Don't try to swim against the current.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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