Spate of drownings highlights need for open water lessons - expert

Prof Chris Button, of the University of Otago, speaks to his daughter Melanie (14) about open...
Prof Chris Button, of the University of Otago, speaks to his daughter Melanie (14) about open water safety yesterday afternoon. Photo: Peter McIntosh
The spate of drownings over the holidays has highlighted the need for open water swimming lessons, a Dunedin water safety researcher says.

Prof Chris Button, of the University of Otago’s School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, said this summer’s record drowning toll could be related to people not having training in how to handle themselves in open water.

This summer’s water-related death toll has reached 30 — the worst since 2015 — after a swimmer at Mt Maunganui got into difficulty and died yesterday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, a man in his 60s died in Waikato Hospital after the boat he was in flipped at Tairua Bar, near Pauanui, on Coromandel Peninsula on Wednesday.

Prof Button was researching whether combining swimming pool training with open water lessons would be more effective than the current pools-only approach.

"One of the issues that I would suggest, and what my research is carefully looking at, is the extent to which our experience or training in swimming pools prepares people adequately to be in open water environments, and that’s where most of these drownings are occurring."

Very few people in New Zealand drowned in swimming pools, he said.

Pools presented fixed environments which had clear water and easy points of entry and exit, and were often supervised by trained lifeguards — all features absent from open water.

"Maybe they’re just so comfortable and familiar with that scenario of the swimming pool that they get that false sense of security."

Open water such as lakes and rivers presented changeable environments such as increased flow rates after rain and submerged obstacles, which required different skills to deal with.

"Being able to float, tread water, being able to adopt an appropriate position in the current for example — at some point those skills are really important and need to be learned, as well as the knowledge of the environments you’re going into."

The death toll for the holidays is the worst seen in several years.

Last summer, 25 drownings were recorded across the whole three-month period, which is also the average over the past five summers.

Prof Button said the number of drownings over the past decade had generally been trending downwards.

People needed to take precautions when going into open water, he said.

"Don’t just rely on what you’ve learned in pools, make sure you’re wearing a life jacket, you’ve got local knowledge, it’s those sort of things that are perhaps lacking in these tragic cases we’ve had in the last few weeks."

andrew.marshall@odt.co.nz

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