Westpac Life Saver Rescue Drones provide a new perspective on rip safety

In the run-up to the long weekend and to help highlight the dangers of rips, which account for an average of 19 drowning deaths in Australia each year, Life Saving Victoria took two of its best athletes to Fairhaven beach on the Great Ocean Road to test whether they could swim against a rip.

“This summer, we have seen a number of rescues of people in rips across Victoria,” says Life Saving Victoria’s manager of lifesaving operations, Liam Krige. “Rips are prevalent across all beaches, but rip-related drownings are largely preventable.”

Open Ironman champion Archie Vernon (18 and a member of Torquay Surf Life Saving Club) says he got caught in a rip when younger at Point Lonsdale back beach.

“It was a bit scary, actually – they’re pretty powerful,” Vernon says. “Last summer during lifesaving patrols at Torquay, we rescued 13 people from a rip in an hour – when there’s an easterly swell and it’s low tide they can catch people unawares quite easily.”

He took to the ocean at Fairhaven beach, where 16 rescues took place this summer compared to three during the whole lifesaving season in 2018-2019, with former professional ironwoman and six-time Lorne Pier to Pub ocean swim winner Naantali Marshall, a member of Anglesea Surf Life Saving Club.

Even though they are both extremely competent ocean swimmers who are familiar with rips and use them to get out to sea quicker during racing, the pair were surprised that during the demonstration they did find themselves caught in a rip and unable to swim against it.

“I’ve won many ironman races along the Great Ocean Road, and even I got stuck in a rip today,” Archie says. “That’s why every time I go to the beach I look to identify where the rip is, so I can find the safest place to swim.”

Life Saving Victoria’s rescue statistics from 1 Dec 2019 – 31 Jan 2020 include 340 rescues, 86354 preventive actions and 1907 first aid applications across Victoria. In the Surf Coast, there were 73 rescues, 147,759 preventive actions and 376 first aid applications for the same period.

“Beach visits and activity has been unusual this peak summer season with the changeable weather,” Liam says. “But, we’re pleased to see a reduction in the number of drowning deaths. This indicates our safety messages are being heard and is also a credit to our lifesavers and lifeguards, who have seen an increase in rescues so far this season.”

He says that if you’re stuck in a rip, the best advice is to stay calm, raise an arm to seek help and float with the current until it releases you. Swimming parallel to the shore can help, or towards breaking waves that you can use to help you get back to shore.

The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Drone service was also on hand for surveillance purposes and to detect any marine creatures while the swimmers were in the water. The service was introduced in March 2019 and has just finished its first peak summer patrol season in Victoria with three lifesaving drones operated by a group of seven volunteer drone pilots.

“For the last six months, we have used the drones across the state on an as-needed basis, with pilots trained in accordance with the CASA requirements,” said the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Drone program chief pilot David Rylance. “They are proving to be a really useful and versatile tool in our lifesaving operations work.”

Another application for the drones has been for surveillance at major lifesaving carnivals and club events, as well as to help identify dangerous rip currents, the deadliest hazards at Australian beaches.

To learn to identify a rip current, watch the safety videos on beachsafe.org.au, where you can also find patrolled locations where you can swim between the red and yellow flags.

 

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