As the state prepares for the anticipated relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions over the coming months, the release today of the 2021 NSW Coastal Safety Report by Surf Life Saving NSW has highlighted the need for hyper-vigilance on our beaches, with a spike in coastal visitation expected following large-scale lockdowns.
These concerns come off the back of a sharp rise in coastal drowning figures nationally – up by 20% overall in 2020-21.
Further analysis is required in NSW to establish any firm trends regarding lockdowns and the link to an increased risk of drowning deaths. However, the preliminary findings are concerning ahead of summer where, if state borders remain closed and international travel restrictions in place, high numbers of people are expected to visit the coastline.
“Once NSW reaches its vaccination targets and restrictions ease, many people are going to flock to our beaches after being stuck at home for so long,” said Surf Life Saving NSW Director of Lifesaving, Joel Wiseman.
“What’s troubling is that the statistics show that following periods of lockdown, we experience a higher number of drowning deaths. Most of these are at unpatrolled locations.
“This comes down to a number of factors, from families seeking more remote and less crowded locations to swim, to the reduced access to swimming lessons and water safety education that comes with being locked down.
“Even the exhaustion of working from home, home-schooling, and increased time in confined spaces can lead to complacency when supervising children around water.”
The annual NSW Coastal Safety Report provides a comprehensive summary and analysis of community perceptions, activities on the coast, coastal and ocean drowning deaths and related fatalities.
In the 12 months from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021, a total of 88 lives were lost on the NSW coastline with 45 of those classified as coastal drownings. This is above the average of 42 drowning deaths annually.
Males are alarmingly overrepresented, accounting for 93% of all coastal drowning deaths – and interestingly, men in their 60s represented the highest proportion of drownings (20% of the total). People who were swimming or wading accounted for 22% of drowning deaths in 2020/21, rock fishing accounted for one in every five deaths, while boating accidents (nearly a third of all drowning deaths in the previous year) represented 16% of all deaths.
Over the 2020/21 season, surf lifesavers and Australian Lifeguard Service lifeguards rescued 3,768 people in NSW and volunteers spent a total of 663,000 hours on patrol.
The report has also analysed data from key danger periods such as long weekends, where, when various factors coincide, the increased risk can be likened to a bushfire emergency.
For example, over the Australia Day long weekend in January, surf lifesavers and lifeguards rescued 815 people over a four-day period, which accounted for 22% of all rescues recorded in the entire year (3,768 rescues). Another 2,467 people were treated for injuries or medical complaints (21% of the 2020/21 season) and the Surf Emergency Response System was activated 26 times, resulting in seven lives saved.
The SLSNSW research team hopes that by being able to predict these high-risk periods in advance, surf life-saving services and resources can be allocated to locations, or at times they will be most effective.
Also leading out of lockdown and into summer, Surf Life Saving will be looking at water safety campaigns and measures to reinforce to people the need to swim at patrolled beaches and to brush up on swimming skills that may have lapsed during the long COVID-19 winter.
“The statistics reinforce the need for us to push surf safety messages throughout our communities. While our volunteer lifesaving and paid lifeguard services continue to be the cornerstone of our service delivery across NSW, we must also invest in community education programs,” said Joel Wiseman.
“I have to admit that we are very concerned about the increased risk of drowning incidents because people may lack the swimming skills or fitness necessary to enjoy the water safely, particularly children who may have missed out on vital swimming lessons.
“Programs like Nippers will be so important to help kids get their confidence back and develop skills in the surf, once we get out of lockdown,” said Joel Wiseman.
Key Findings in 2020-21
- Swimming fatalities comprised 22% of all coastal and ocean drownings
- Rock fishing fatalities comprised 20% of coastal drownings
- Total coastal deaths were 88, including 45 coastal drownings
- Boating fatalities comprised 16% of all coastal drownings
- Men made up 93% of all coastal drownings.
Drownings by Surf Life Saving Branch
- Far North Coast– 3
- North Coast– 8
- Mid North Coast – 2
- Lower North Coast– 2
- Hunter – 3
- Central Coast – 2
- Sydney Northern Beaches– 3
- Sydney – 10
- Illawarra– 6
- South Coast – 1
- Far South Coast– 5
Read the full report here.
BEACH SAFETY TIPS
- Always swim between the red and yellow patrol flags, for your nearest patrolled beach check the BeachSafe app or website
- Read the safety signs for information about the beach and ask a lifesaver or lifeguard for safety information
- Always swim with someone else so you can look out for each other, and always supervise children around the water
- Never swim under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- If you need help in the water, stay calm and attract attention by raising one arm
- In an emergency, dial Triple Zero
For information about patrol times, weather, and beach locations visit the Beachsafe Website or Download the App.