Last week there were two more drownings on remote New South Wales beaches. This time it was a couple in their 40s, a mother and father, swept to their deaths at Frazer Beach, inside Munmorah National Park on the Central Coast, while their young daughter watched the whole tragic scene play out. This unpatrolled beach ranks as one of the country’s most dangerous, with at least 14 drownings in the past 20 years.
Fatal drownings on unpatrolled beaches in NSW have risen nearly 60 per cent this summer to 25, compared to the 10-year average of 16 deaths. It is also the highest number in the state’s history, and has prompted Surf Life Saving NSW chief executive Steve Pearce to start “serious conversations” with the National Parks and Wildlife Service about extending lifeguard services to more remote beaches.
Only 21 per cent of NSW’s 721 beaches across nearly 2000 kilometres of coast are patrolled. Because of their remoteness, about a quarter of the fatalities have occurred in national parks, prompting calls for more lifeguards on these often beaches.
“If hundreds or thousands of people are going to visit these locations, we need to ensure that we have some form of appropriate water safety there,” he told the ABC. “Our people have responded to some terrible drownings over the past five years in that location.”
Water safety expert Rob “Dr Rip” Brander says that there is an unrealistic focus on one message: Swim between the flags. As people seek out more remote locations for their camping and day trips, inevitably on unpatrolled beaches, it is leading to disastrous consequences. Most of the drownings, and in particular the multiple fatalities, have all occurred at remote beaches, often inside national parks, a long way from the nearest patrolled beach and active lifeguard station.
“We need to go beyond the flags message, and give [the public] some more safety information,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. He wants more research on how to educate the public, and communicate the risks of unpatrolled beaches more effectively. Brander wants more publicity of Surf Life Saving’s Think Line message to beachgoers: “STOP to check for rips. LOOK for other dangers. PLAN how to stay safe.”
The University of New South Wales did a study that concluded on average every Australian will be involved in one water rescue over the course of their lifetime. Unfortunately this summer, and the trend in general, is that would-be rescuers are the ones most likely to pay the ultimate price for their valour.
Repeated news stories have yielded similar headlines. Parent drowns attempting to rescue child. Family member drowns trying to rescue family member. And it’s what anyone would do, but with some basic knowledge the end results could be so much different.
The summer’s toll included five people who have died trying to save loved ones on unpatrolled beaches. Not one carried a flotation device, said Shane Daw, general manager coastal safety, Surf Life Saving Australia.
The University of New South Wales’ Amy Peden said that it’s often a result of the rescuer becoming exhausted whilst trying to keep another person afloat that leads to this tragic outcome. The key advice coming from her research is that if someone is in trouble, then taking a few key steps can dramatically alter the outcome. If there are other people, stronger swimmers or surfers around, then alert them. Secondly the authorities should be called before anyone enters the water. And finally, the most important according to her data, is to take something, anything, with you that floats. A surfboard is best but a water bottle is better than nothing. Essentially anything that can hold air is better than nothing.
“We’ve done surveys of people involved in bystander rescues and looking at the fatalities, the main theme that came out is that people didn’t bring a floatation device,” says Peden. “If they did, it was a successful rescue.”