The Clutha River. Photo by Helena de Reus.
Drowning statistics for this country remain a concern,
despite being at their lowest in six years.
Water Safety NZ data shows 93 people died in New Zealand
waters last year, compared with 132 in 2011. While the toll
is heading in the right direction, it is still high, and any
deaths are a tragedy. A further tragedy is that many of the
deaths were regarded as preventable if water safety basics -
such as wearing life jackets - were heeded.
New Zealand drowning rates are among the worst in the
developed world, third only to Finland and Brazil. According
to Water Safety New Zealand, drowning is consistently the
third highest cause of unintentional death in New Zealand. As
an island nation, whose citizens love the water and the great
outdoors, deaths often occur in the pursuit of what should be
fun-filled recreational activities - swimming, fishing and
water sports - often with family and friends. This has been
the case in the latest water tragedy in our own area.
The search for missing South Otago teenager Blake McKenzie
(18), who fell into the Clutha River on Saturday while
kneeboarding behind a boat, has this week been a recovery
operation. The exact details surrounding Blake's presumed
death as yet remain unknown and no assumptions should be
made. No-one, though, will be without sympathy for family and
friends mourning the loss of a ''great boy with a very
friendly manner and a dry sense of humour''.
While overall drownings decreased last year, the latest
statistics show those related to power boating almost
doubled, with 20 deaths last year, compared with 11 in 2011.
Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Matt Claridge said
many skippers did not know what resources were available, or
the skills and knowledge they needed to develop: ''The real
issue is that a lot of the people who need skipper education
don't realise it is necessary or available.''
He said resources should be available to ensure ''all roads
lead to skipper education for everyone''.
The sad fact is a raft of information and safety advice has
been readily available for years - from television and print
advertising, media articles and reports to print and online
information. Boating information is easily obtainable or read
online from a variety of agencies such as Water Safety New
Zealand, Maritime New Zealand, the New Zealand Marine
Industry Association, Coastguard New Zealand and regional
councils. The organisations list the many training
It is possible complacency is an issue. Compounding the
problem is recreational boats do not need to be surveyed or
inspected, and skippers of such craft do not require any
qualification or a licence to operate one. In the wake of
boating tragedies, there have been calls for similar rules to
apply to recreational boaties as those that apply to
commercial operators - including introducing a licensing
system. Of course, even with such a system, responsibility is
On a related note, concerns have also been raised for some
time about general water safety skills given the rapidly
declining swimming ability of New Zealand children. Water
Safety New Zealand figures show 70% of 12-year-olds cannot
swim 200m. Earlier surveys by the organisation showed 50% of
10-year-olds could not swim 25m, and 25% of 10-year-olds
could not float.
Blame has been laid on the fact swimming is now only a
nominal part of the education curriculum, with the Tomorrow's
Schools reforms of the 1980s shifting responsibility for
managing school pools to school boards. Other criticisms have
been about a lack of public pools, the high cost of private
lessons, insufficient and piecemeal funding, and
disagreements between organisations over swimming
Mr Claridge has estimated it would cost $28 million to
implement an effective, nationwide learn-to-swim programme
for primary school children. And that of course is part of
the problem. With no bottomless pit for funding, priorities
have to be made - by governments, school boards and families
alike. Swimming skills don't necessarily come top of the
list, and tragedies can strike even the best prepared. But
being able to swim is surely a fundamental life skill in a
country like ours.