"You know a surf lifesaver never turns his back to the water, right?" Kent Jarman says semi-seriously as he poses in front of the camera.

It's sunny and the surf's up as the 50-year surf lifeguard veteran points out a dark line in the waters on Mount Main Beach.

"That's a rip," he tells me, before running his fingers into the sand to draw out how one may appear on a beach.

After five decades of lifeguard service at the beach, he has a feel of the conditions and can instinctively spot hidden dangers.

Advertisement

There's a running joke within the club that when he is at the beach things seem to happen.

"I don't create them," he says, "I just happen to be around when things happen."

Jarman has dealt with countless rescues and tragedies in his career. He finds it difficult to discuss one particular tragedy. It hit close to home.

The death of 17-year-old Hamish Rieger, a fellow lifeguard, on January 23 last year left Jarman reeling.

A rogue wave snatched the teenager at the end of Moturiki (Leisure) Island and swept him out to sea.

The next day, Jarman helped recover the body of a fresh-faced teenager he had watched grow from a young nipper to a lifeguard.

"Hamish's whole family belonged to the club. That was difficult, very, very difficult. That brings it close to home.

"At least with Hamish, we found him quite quickly, it is so important for the family in terms of getting some closure."

The search was difficult. Jarman had briefed his crew to focus on the job at hand and reflect later. This time he struggled to follow his own advice.

"For the first time in my life I went and saw a counsellor, and it was probably the best thing I did," Jarman said.

"I had a lot of baggage I had stored up over the years, and it was good just to let it all out."

He called it a cleansing process.

"It touched a bit of a nerve because it was someone so close. I just felt I needed to talk to somebody."

Jarman said there were protocols in place to support lifeguards in tragic situations, but "when you see a fresh-faced 17-year-old that's tough".

"I am sure that any young people who join surf lifesaving don't buy into the fact that one day they might have to deal with a tragedy. It is the nature of what we do."

Two years earlier, Jarman spent 10 days searching for 5-year-old Jack Dixon who was swept away by a rogue wave at Mount Maunganui on October 1, 2014.

A lingering sense of frustration remains that they were never able to find him.

"Jack touched the community. It certainly touched all of us here at the club.

"They are the sort of things you never forget. Two different circumstances, both very tragic."


A MAN ON GUARD

Jarman is continually reminding beach-goers to keep safe.

The phenomenal growth of Tauranga and the Mount in the past 10 years has seen an increase in the number of people visiting the beach with little knowledge of surf conditions.

"It is just a cultural thing, particularly in the last few years we have got a lot of new immigrants who come from countries who probably don't even have surf," he said.

"They will go for a swim but have no concept of the fact the conditions are often quite bursting.

"There have been a couple of days when we have been really busy, and we have pulled out 26 in the space of about three hours," he says.

"Last year we had five straight out in front of the club."

He points to Mauao and says, "That big old mountain keeps us pretty busy too.

"In September we had seven callouts in eight days and of those seven six of them were not water-related."

One of those rescues included a man suffering from hypothermia while lying under a tree with a dislocated foot.

"We have to be reasonably good first aiders," says Jarman.

"We are not in the same category as St John; we are the first response."


ONCE A LIFEGUARD, ALWAYS A LIFEGUARD

Jarman finds the idea of relaxing on the beach amusing.

"When I go for a surf I do," he says.

"I don't think you ever stop being a lifeguard. I go to visit my son in Australia, and I go to the beach, and I look at it as a lifeguard.

"When I go to a beach I don't switch off. For me, it is sort of instinctive."


HOW MANY HAVE WE LOST?

Hamish Rieger and Jack Dixon were two of 496 drowning fatalities in New Zealand from 2012-2017 - 47 of those were in the Bay of Plenty.

Water Safety New Zealand chief Jonty Mills said declining levels of aquatic education in schools was a concern.

A study commissioned by Water Safety New Zealand and conducted by the New Zealand Council for Education Research found only about a quarter of schools provided a minimum acceptable combination of eight or more water-based lessons per year.

"Water Safety New Zealand believes the minimum should be 10 lessons of at least 30 minutes, Mills said.

"Schools are under increasing financial pressure with increasing costs everywhere. School pools are expensive to maintain and travel costs to community facilities are often prohibitive."

Mills said the nation's drowning rate was at the top end of the developed world.

"With our extensive waterways, high participation rates, a booming migrant population, and an underfunded water safety sector reliant on volunteers, it is a challenging problem.

"Aquatic education needs to be a priority."

He said international research suggested one of the most powerful tools to tackle drowning was to teach water safety skills.

"It is no longer just about swimming. It is now accepted swimming on its own is not enough to save a life. Our children need to learn fundamental water safety skills and how to assess risk."

That's why Water Safety New Zealand wanted its Water Skills For Life initiative to become the minimum standard for aquatic education for every Kiwi child aged 5-13. The initiative was also the major focus of its Drowning Prevention Investment Programme.

Mills said educating migrants to New Zealand about water safety was "extremely important".

"New Zealand's waterways are picturesque and look inviting but our rivers and lakes are cold, and our beaches can have strong rips and currents," he said.

"Also, visitors from other countries may not come from cultures with high participation rates in water-based activities and may be lacking in safety knowledge."

ARE THE SURF CLUBS KEEPING UP?

A growing population along the Bay of Plenty coast is stretching the resources of surf lifesaving clubs, local surf lifesavers say.

Mount Maunganui, Omanu and Papamoa undertake about 15,000 hours of volunteer patrols every year without financial support from council or government.

Mount Maunganui chairman Paul Manning said there was an expectation put on clubs for the services delivered and the increasing number of beach-goers had resulted in two new flagged areas at Tay St and Papamoa East.

"In the past five years we have conducted 453 rescues and 16,375 preventative actions preventing hundreds of potential tragedies," Manning said.

Papamoa chairman Andrew Hitchfield said obtaining grants and securing funding had become more competitive over the past few years.

"While our members volunteer time to lifeguard they are also required to partake in fundraising activities to support the club operations."

Because of this, the three Tauranga clubs have sent out a joint fundraising proposal to local corporates.

The clubs will also be supporting a submission by Surf Life Saving New Zealand at the upcoming BOP regional plan review for a provincial levy for emergency services which applied in other regions including Waikato.

Tauranga City Council parks and recreation manager Mark Smith said the council funded Surf Life Saving NZ to provide a regional lifeguard programme across the coast over the peak summer season.

He said the council's contract with SLSNZ was valued $180,000, with the majority going towards lifeguard salaries.

"We are very aware of the growing pressures on our beaches and on those tasked with keeping people safe," he said.

"Recently council has supported SLSNZ by increasing the regional guard programme to include a patrolled area at Tay St beach and Taylor Reserve/beach in Papamoa East."

The council will also contribute a total of $500,000 towards the Mount Surf Club redevelopment project which will begin in April 2018.

The council would also put $1.2 million toward the redevelopment of Papamoa Surf Club.

LEARNING TO SWIM

Liz Van Weilen believes more children are unable to swim because of the cost associated with swimming lessons.

"Parents' dollars are spread so thin because there are so many activities out there.

"Learning to play the piano is not going to save your life. I understand it is expensive, but what cost do you put on your child's life or your own?"

The Tauranga swimming instructor had noticed a significant increase in the number of migrant families learning to swim.

"We have got a lot of Korean mums learning to swim, and their kids are in learn to swim programmes."

She had also seen a significant increase in Indian families taking lessons.

Andrea Sinden of Tauranga Swim School believed children were not learning enough about how to stay safe in our region's waterways.

"Children are often growing up in families where both parents are working fulltime, and this means that many children attend after-school care and therefore are not able to enrol in after-school swimming lessons," she said.

Sinden said reduced funding had also meant many school pools were not used because repair costs had become unattainable.

"Of the schools currently running a learn to swim programme, many are using overstretched academic teachers to instruct children," she said.

Sinden said water-based activities were a large part of the Bay lifestyle.

"People of all ages can have lots of fun, children especially, love getting in the water and enjoying water-based sports such as water polo, underwater hockey, canoeing, scuba diving, surfing and triathlon.

"Whatever a child's age or ability, they can take part in swimming, enjoy it and feel like they are achieving something."

About 30 per cent of Sinden's clients were migrants from non-swimming countries.

"Many people are arriving in our beautiful country unprepared for the variety of water-based activities which form a huge part of our lives."

Sinden said it was important for Immigration New Zealand to take an active role in informing migrants of the hazards associated with the nation's waterways and providing visitors with local swim school's contact details.

A swimming instructor for 25 years, Sinden had helped many people overcome deep-seated fears often as a result of an accident or tragedy.

"Seeing people overcome their aquaphobia and develop a love for the water is one of the most rewarding things that I have done in my life."

CASE STUDY

Tauranga parents Gareesh and Ruby Madhas are learning to swim.

Gareesh, 38, and Ruby, 37, have just learned how to float and go underwater alongside their 6-year-old daughter Sheena.

Mr Madhas said the family signed up for a learn to swim programme at Tauranga Swim School about a month ago.

He believed the reason why he had not learned how to swim earlier was that it was not pushed at school.

"I used to take swimming lessons back in the United Kingdom when I was about 10," he said.

"But I stopped taking the lessons and never took it any further. Swimming wasn't very popular in the UK at that time.

"It is certainly more popular here in the warmer climates. Even in the summer, it is cold in the UK."

It was only when the family moved from West London to New Zealand that they decided to learn to swim so they could enjoy the waters while holidaying in tropical islands such as Fiji.

Mr Madhas said learning how to swim as an adult wasn't "too bad".

"Once you are in it is quite fun. Maybe we should have done it earlier, and we would have picked it up sooner ... but it is never too late to learn."

He had read news articles about water incidents and said it was essential to stay safe in the water.

"I think it is quite important, particularly if you are going to go to the beaches from a safety perspective but also for the lifestyle, and it is good exercise."

It was also important for their daughter Sheena to be confident in the water, Mr Madhas said.

"It is quite important that she learns how to swim because they do swimming at school and she needed to keep up with the other children."

His advice? "If you don't know how to swim, stay in the shallows, learn how to swim if you want to go out any further."

POPULATION GROWTH FROM 2013-2017:
Bay of Plenty: 279,700 to 299,900
Tauranga: 119,800 to 131,500
Western Bay of Plenty: 45,500 to 49,000

DROWNING STATISTICS:
New Zealand: 496 drowning fatalities from November 2012-November 2017
Bay of Plenty: 47 drowning fatalities

Location:
Calm water beach - 1
Rocky foreshore - 2
Surf beach - 8
Lakes - 8
Pond - 1
Offshore - 2
Public pools - 4
Rivers - 7
Harbour - 1
Marina - 1
River/harbour bar - 2

SURF LIFESAVING RESCUES:
- 453 rescues
- 16,375 preventative actions
- 400 trained lifeguards


MEMORIALS:
JACK DIXON:

Photos and toys were placed on the side of Mauao near Shelley Beach where 5-year-old Jack Dixon was swept out to sea on October 1, 2014.

GREG RIEGER:

Trees have been planted on Leisure Island where Hamish Rieger was washed away by a rogue wave on January 23, 2016. Hamish's parents Donna and Greg Rieger are running 12 half marathons in 12 months to raise funds for the Spirit of Adventure Trust - something close to Hamish's heart.

To support the 'I Ride With Hame' fundraiser, donate directly to ASB 12-3011-0461607-52.

To join the Riegers by doing any of the 12 half marathons, contact Greg via the Facebook page 'I Ride With Hame'.