Lifeguards gear up for peak period

Lifeguards are gearing up for the biggest weekend of the year as holidaymakers throughout the country throng at popular beaches.

Over summer, about 4000 volunteer lifeguards will spend more than 200,000 hours keeping a watchful eye on some 80 beaches around the country.

Surf Life Saving NZ chief executive Paul Dalton said there would be massive crowds on beaches from today, come rain or shine, after people had made their way to holiday destinations over the last couple of days.

"That's when it will all start to hit in - it will go right through to New Year's weekend or past then. Then everybody will be heading back to work.

"This next two weeks is what it's all about."

Lifeguards were up to the challenge, Mr Dalton said.

"It's what they've been training for all year, really - massive numbers on the beaches, absolute vigilance on what's going on, and really being prepared."

The weather had a massive impact on how busy beaches were, Mr Dalton said.

"You compare last summer, which was basically one of the best in living memory, to the year before, which was an absolute shocker - there's a huge difference in terms of the number of people putting themselves in risky situations."

He doubted the patchy weather forecast for this weekend would put people off.

"Once people go on holiday, then they'll go for a swim regardless. They're going to make the most of it."

Most problems on surf beaches happened after patrol hours and when people had been drinking, Mr Dalton said.

"It's the times when there's nobody watching and there's no patrol there that you tend to find the tragedy happens."

Mr Dalton urged beachgoers not to drink, and to become familiar with conditions on unpatrolled beaches. Locals would have a good idea about where the rips were, he said.

During an average summer surf life saving season, more than 1200 people are rescued from life-threatening situations. Last year that number was more than 1600.

There have been 78 drowning deaths this year as of Boxing Day, according to Water Safety NZ - lower than the 94 deaths as of Boxing Day last year, and 98 in total for 2012.

- Matthew Backhouse of APNZ

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