Enjoying the water safely

The Clutha River. Photo by Helena de Reus.
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 opportunities available.

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 not guaranteed.

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 instruction.

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.