Chch beaches ready for summer
With the city's beaches open again after last year's upheavals, swimming prospects over the coming holiday season are looking good. The region's surf lifesavers are also gearing up for a busy summer ahead.
It would be fair to say that many Christchurch people felt a little unsure about going for a swim at the beach last year. Sewage contamination resulting from earthquake damage put the beaches off limits for some months after the February 22 earthquake. It took a while for people to start to trust the water again.
The latest Ministry for the Environment recreational water quality report is likely to restore some confidence. New Brighton, Sumner and Waimari are rated "good" - or satisfactory for swimming most of the time - while Taylors Mistake rates as "very good", as do other popular spots, such as Spencerville, Woodend and Waikuku beaches.
Projects, such as a recent beach cleanup at Waimari, have also helped bolster enthusiasm for the local beach environment.
Of course, it's not just water quality that's on people's minds these days.
"With some of our beaches, like Sumner and Taylors Mistake, there is still some apprehension about going into these areas for fear of being trapped by rockfall, in case there's another earthquake," says Dougal Holmes, who is Surf Lifesaving New Zealand's southern region programmes and services manager.
But for those ready to face down their fears, Taylors Mistake is still a tempting jewel over Scarborough Hill from Sumner.
"It's the most beautiful beach. It gets less wind than some of the others and there's a very strong surf club there that is very proactive in keeping that area safe," says Holmes, who is a member of the Taylors Mistake Surf Life Saving Club.
Holmes lives across the road from New Brighton beach, so it is perhaps no surprise to learn that his wife, Deb Bowry, is a member of the New Brighton Surf Life Saving (SLS) Club, which is the oldest surf club in New Zealand.
Their son, Jonty Holmes, 17, is with the Sumner SLS Club, so this family has most of the main beaches covered.
New Brighton beach ranks as the fourth most family-friendly beach in New Zealand on findabeach.co.nz, a website developed by Surf Life Saving New Zealand and its principal partner, State Insurance, to share beach, weather and safety information.
As this site says, the combination of typically small waves and great facilities, such as the whale-pool and playground next to the beach, make New Brighton an inviting family beach.
Users are, however, warned that conditions can change quickly along the exposed coastline. Swimming at New Brighton is generally safest under surf conditions of one metre.
In ranking beaches, factors such as the physical rating of the beach, incident history, access, parking and recreational values are all considered, says Brett Sullivan, general manager of Surf Life Saving New Zealand.
"All those beaches like New Brighton, South Brighton, Waimari and North Beach are going to be pretty much the same in terms of safety, but New Brighton has a few more facilities and is more accessible, which is why it comes out higher."
Wherever people choose to swim, Sullivan urges everyone to remember the basic water safety code this summer: be prepared, watch out for yourself and others, be aware of the dangers (like the potential for rips around manmade or natural structures), and know your own limits.
As Holmes observes, the main thing to watch out for, when spending a day at New Brighton beach, is "a bit of a rip" that runs around the pier, which should be avoided as a swimming area.
"Over summer, New Brighton has patrols in front of the surf club and that's the best place to swim," he says, adding that he has noticed more people out on his local beach on the warmer days of late.
"There seems to be more activity on the ocean side compared with this time last year. The water quality is certainly back up and we're keen to promote that fact."
Before the earthquakes, Sumner used to be one of the city's most popular swimming beaches, but it had a quiet summer last year.
It's hard to predict to what extent numbers will pick up again there this year and, as ever, so much depends on the weather.
From a swim safety perspective, Sumner is a little less safe than New Brighton.
Blair Quane knows the beach very well. Both his grandfather and father were involved with the Sumner SLS Club before him and Quane has been a club member for 20 years, including 10 years as club president.
As he explains, there are rip currents coming out of the estuary that can cause problems for inexperienced swimmers.
The geography of this beach changes from year to year because of this estuary outflow.
"As water moves out through the main channel by Shag Rock, it cuts across the beach," says Quane. "There are rips that can pull people out behind Cave Rock.
"There are various holes, rips and currents. You can be standing up on a sandbar, but find when you try to swim back in, you might all of a sudden be over your head in a current taking you back out to sea.
"The beach profile changes all the time. One week the conditions can be fine and the next week a potentially dangerous current has formed."
Environment Canterbury coastal scientist Justin Cope says the dynamics of the estuary have altered with the quakes, so there is now less water coming in and out over a tidal cycle.
"That will have an effect on the way the channel works," says Cope.
"It might be a bit more stable and there might also be a bit more sand being distributed around the Sumner beach area."
Nevertheless, the beach's rip-prone tendencies remain, underlining the importance of a strong surf lifesaving presence at Sumner to keep a close eye on changing conditions and the safety of the swimming public. Typically, about 20 to 30 rescues are made off this beach every year.
Of course, the golden rule is "swim between the flags", which are there to show the safest place to swim on any given day. If you do get into trouble in the water, raise one hand straight up above your head: this is the international sign, recognised by lifeguards, for "I need help!"
Surf lifesaving in quake-affected Christchurch is facing its own challenges. There has been a loss of members from some clubs and the QEII complex is sorely missed. It used to be a great training hub for surf lifesaving in Canterbury. Now, people have to travel to places such as Jellie Park and the Graham Condon Recreation & Sport Centre for training.
As well as its usual responsibilities, Sumner SLS Club is having to fundraise for a new club pavilion to replace its quake-damaged club building, which is earmarked for demolition. Quane is devoting his energy and expertise to the pavilion project as chairman of Sumner SLS Club's rebuild committee.
In the meantime, the club is using shipping containers and a portacom as gear sheds and a patrol operations room, says Quane.
"We're currently working with Aurecon, our engineers, who have kindly donated a large chunk of services to do the necessary engineering work, and David Hill, of Wilson & Hill Architects Ltd, on the architectural side.
"We'd like to go for consent early in the New Year and the ideal timeframe would be to start construction during the winter of 2013."
Funding to date for the new pavilion is at about the halfway point.
Once complete, it will provide a great new facility for many years for the dedicated volunteers, who work hard to maintain a safe beach environment at Sumner.
Sumner SLS Club's lifeguard officer, Nick Keats, says even though the club is making do with less than ideal facilities, beach safety is not being compromised. A full roster of guards is being maintained and there is still a fully serviced first-aid room.
Meanwhile, changing demographics in and around the city, as a result of the quakes, are expected to flow through to greater use of the region's northern beaches this summer.
Holmes says Surf Lifesaving New Zealand is extending its services during the Christmas holidays to include patrolling at Pegasus Bay for the first time, from December 24 to January 17.
It will also be patrolling at Woodend and Pines Beach from late December to late January in response to population growth north of the city.
Waikuku already has a strong surf lifesaving club, with weekend volunteer life guards usually on patrol from 11am to 5pm during the summer.
Always remember, when enjoying the water safety must be the first priority, says Holmes.
According to Water Safety New Zealand data, there were 57 drowning deaths in the Canterbury region from 2007 to 2011. Ten of these drowning fatalities occurred at the beach.