When I was at Primary School we had a week very soon after Term One started where all students at school would participate in what was known as Swim Week. For a whole week all classes would participate in water safety programmes run at the school using the school pool. When we were not actually being given pool side instruction on how to swim, we were learning about safety in rivers and lakes, at the beach. We learnt about swimming between the flags, about wearing a life jacket on a boat and about how to get out of dangerous situations.
When I look back at Swim Week and the whole rationale behind it, I am sad to see the number of people who are drowning or otherwise being involved in needless accidents going through the roof. Just today the death toll from drowning in New Zealand for 2015 exceeded 100 people. That’s 100 people who will not see in 2016 in a few days time because they went into water in the course of a recreational pursuit and never came back out. We blame it on all sorts of things – boating bylaws; a lack of fences around pools; supervision among other things. But at the end of the day so many of the drownings are because people got into situations that they did not know how to handle themselves in. But time and again it comes back to the very things we were taught in Swim Week, which included identifying rips at the beach; swimming between the flags and not going into the water at unpatrolled beaches; telling someone what you were doing. All of it common sense.
What is really irksome is this is not rocket science or nuclear physics. There have been numerous tragedies locally at the Waimakariri River, and some have involved people who could swim, but misread the water conditions where they ran into difficulties. It is true also that sometimes, however well meaning, the signage at known places of risk is not clear in telling the public about the hazard.
One thing that needs to be done when educating non-New Zealanders about this country is making sure they understand our conditions are quite different from overseas. Our lakes, rivers and seas can change very quickly. Even if new comers – especially those from countries not known for their aquatic environments – are not enrolled in swimming lessons, showing videos to them about how make themselves safe and 1-on-1 theory instruction should be had.
What is wrong with people taking basic responsibility for their own actions? If there are signs saying no swimming in a certain location or to exercise caution, the local council did not put them there just to beautify the location, but because there is a credible risk. A boat driver should have as many life jackets in the boat as he can take passengers. A person who cannot swim – quite aside from getting into swimming classes as soon as they reasonably can – should not be near water of depth without supervision, and if they are planning to do so, they should go in with supervision.
If there is anything we should be trying to drown, it is not ourselves, but our drowning statistics.