Bondi View

Drownings prompt new focus on beach safety

International visitors are being targeted to swim between the flags. Photo: Surf Life Saving NSW

Last year was especially dangerous on the state’s beaches, according to Surf Life Saving Australia’s annual National Coastal Safety Report.

The report shows NSW reached a coastal drowning toll of 48 causalities, ten more than the nine-year average. Coastal regions constitute NSW beaches and coastal waterways.

According to the report, most drownings occured during activities such as swimming/wading and rock fishing – together accounting for 39.6 per cent of the state’s deaths. Other activities which posed grave risks were boating (12.5 per cent) and the use of non-powered watercrafts such as surfboards (10.4 per cent).

One incident occurred at Bondi Beach on November 4, 2013, when a Japanese man was declared missing. A few days later he was found dead.

NSW accounted for almost 40 per cent of the nationwide death toll of 121.

Matt Miller, a spokesperson from Surf Life Saving NSW, attributed the number to the state’s concentrated coastal population and beach-friendly lifestyle.

“When you compare it to Melbourne, there are nearly as many people but they don’t have that coastal-culture that Sydney has and I think that alone is a big reflection of it,” he said.

“Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia all those places have rough seas. Probably, more rough than NSW. But then again [the NSW toll] is a reflection of our population, our warm climate, and the concentration of people on the coastline in the state.”

Major factors that contributed to these drownings include unnecessary risk-taking, the inability to properly read signage, and visiting unpatrolled beaches. Measures are being put into place to combat them.

Waverley Council recently published a video to educate beachgoers, especially those with language barriers. More than six per cent of the state toll comprised of international visitors.

“We try to get the video to backpackers, on airplanes…basically explaining in numerous languages that you must swim between the flags,” said Waverley mayor Sally Betts.

“That’s the message, whatever you do, no matter how good a swimmer you are.”

Surf Life Saving also providies concentrated education programs in black spots identified across the state though the government-supported Project Blue Print.

“We are risk-assessing every beach, rock, headland, across the whole state over four years,” said Mr Miller.

“After the beaches have been assessed, there’s a huge document of recommendations and policy changes that we suggested and then council have been taking them on.”

But Ms Betts said beach assessment could only achieve so much.

“I’m sure it’s fantastic,” she said. “But [last Saturday] we had an incident when a rip came in very quickly. In fact, they used the shark alarm to get people out of the water quickly. That’s the problem. I mean, I understand people are assessing the beaches, but the situation on a specific beach, especially a long one like Bondi, can change just instantaneously.”

Terry McDermott, a Bondi lifeguard and spokesperson for the Australian Professional Ocean Lifeguard Association, said his organisation had raised the bar on the level of training required of lifeguards.

“If you stack our qualifications up against other organisations, you’ll find that we’re very highly trained in all sorts of areas – not only in fitness, but in things like defibrillation, jetski rescue, analgesic gases just to name a few,” he said.

“There’s a mixture of respect and disrespect. There’s a mixture of obeying by the rules and flaunting the rules. There’s a mixture of luck and unluckiness. But the ocean doesn’t discriminate who it takes. And even at times the best people in the water can drown.”

By Shami Sivasubramanian

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