It’s been a busy summer for lifesavers and lifeguards along our coastlines as beach attendance at patrolled locations exceeded 2 million. From December 1st 2017 to 13th February 2018, there were 544 rescues, 95,766 preventive actions, 1,369 first aids and, tragically, 21 drownings.
“Our volunteers have been doing a tremendous job in challenging circumstances with more prevalent rip currents this season and rescues up significantly,” says Dr Bernadette Matthews, LSV’s Principal Research Associate and author of the Victorian Drowning Report.
“We started the season with inland waterways being the focus due to the increase in drownings during the 2016/17 financial year, but the coast has become the location of the majority of drownings this summer season,” says Dr Matthews.
There have been 32 reported drowning deaths in Victoria from 1 July 2017 to 13 February 2018, which is 6 more than the 5-year average for the same time period. However, this summer, the 21 reported drowning deaths in Victoria from 1 December 2017 to 13 February 2018 make the statistics the highest summer drowning toll in Victoria since detailed records began in 2000.
“This is 9 more than the 5-year average for the same time period, which is really worrying,” says Dr Matthews, who along with other LSV representatives recently met with the Bass Coast Shire Council and Phillip Island Nature Parks to talk about prevention initiatives following drownings at Cape Woolamai beach over the summer and more recent years.
The spike in drownings not only reflects challenging and changing conditions on our beaches this summer, which may have caught swimmers unaware, but also the growth in visitors along the coast and the diversity of beachgoers in Victoria.
To put the drowning statistics into context, Derek Wilson, the father of two children – Ben (aged 7) and Molly (aged 4), who tragically drowned at Gunnamatta with their teenage cousins twenty years’ ago last month, is urging other family members of drowning victims to come forward to share their experiences and highlight the deep impact behind the statistics.
“One of my children recently told me she grew up in a house of grief, because she was only one when Ben and Molly drowned, it’s hard to hear, but it’s true,” says Mr Wilson. “We couldn’t change what happened to us, but if we could change the outcome for someone else by talking about our experience, well then it wasn’t a total waste.”
He has been deeply affected by the recent spate of drownings around the state, which he calls ‘a horrendous summer for drowning’.
“My worry is that over time, there’s the risk of complacency,” says Mr Wilson. “We still think Victoria delivers beach safety messages far better than any other state, but we need to keep going. Enough voices can generate the change, but sometimes change takes a couple of decades.”
LSV works hard together with other aquatic agencies on the Play it Safe by the Water committee to deliver beach safety messages to groups identified as having a high-risk of drowning, and getting the message out to locations with greater risk profiles, but parents and caregivers can also help by ensuring the future generation has the right skills to cope in the water.
“Parents and caregivers need to continue to take their children swimming regularly at their local pool, enrol in swimming lessons and be persistent in teaching the younger generation water safety,” says Dr Matthews. “It’s a life skill, not just a sport.”
Nippers programs for children are available at surf life saving clubs around the state, including at Australia’s only inland life saving club at Mildura in the state’s far north.
“Open water swimming requires a different set of skills, and many of our lifesaving clubs are filled with people from the city who travel to the coast on weekends or over the Christmas period to give their children this connection to the ocean conditions,” says Dr Matthews.
For older members of the public, LSV also runs Grey Medallion programs for the over 55s, as well as a new Open Water Grey Medallion program, delivered in open water environments.
“Our hard-working and skilled volunteers should take great pride in their work in rescuing people in trouble in the water, but they can’t be everywhere,” says Dr Matthews. “People also need to take personal responsibility, learn CPR and how to identify rip currents, read up about what to do if caught in a rip current and check conditions – we want everyone to come home safely from a day at the beach, by the pool or at an inland waterway.”
Do you need more information? Visit our website and read our Drowning Report.
Visit www.beachsafe.org.au for beach safety tips to pass on to friends and family and help LSV reduce the drowning toll for Victoria.
Fairfax recently published a rip current interactive piece here. Can you identify a rip?www.theage.com.au/interactive/2018/how-to-spot-a-rip/