Ben Hill is a reporter for The New Zealand Herald

Delusions of competence blamed for male deaths

Of the 50 drownings in New Zealand from December to March, 44 were male, and all nine victims in the Auckland region during the same period were male. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Of the 50 drownings in New Zealand from December to March, 44 were male, and all nine victims in the Auckland region during the same period were male. Photo / Brett Phibbs

An avoidable summertime "disease" is killing Kiwi blokes and is caused by men who back themselves beyond their abilities in the water, according to an expert.

Men are drowning at a far greater rate than women, and WaterSafe Auckland chairman and Auckland University lecturer Dr Kevin Moran is undertaking research into how to reduce those numbers.

Of the 50 drownings in New Zealand from December to March, 44 were male, and all nine victims in the Auckland region during the same period were male.

Although five of those who drowned nationally were 14 years or under, 45 were 15 or over.

"Males think they can swim better than they can and they under-estimate the risks. All our research shows this quite clearly, that this is a male disease," Dr Moran said.

"Add to the mix, then, things like males thinking they don't need to wear life jackets because they can swim, yeah right, that's the problem.

"Females by comparison are risk-averse ... they don't take risks in the open water like males do."

Of the nine drownings in Auckland over summer, two involved children aged 1 and 7, while the other seven were between the ages of 13 and 70.

During the whole of 2015, 16 people drowned in Auckland, nine at beaches. Between 2011 and last year, 104 people drowned in the region, and Dr Moran said the number of drownings had remained constant across each of those years.

"The question is what do you do, trying to legislate or prohibit, all these sort of things we know don't work.

"The only thing that works is education. My call now is to say to educators and safety promoters that we should be targeting males, and in particular young males."

Dr Moran said in some cases signs that warn of the dangers posed by unguarded bodies of water could cause the opposite of the desired effect.

"We often get young men killing themselves by jumping off heights, so we've put up signs and those are like a red rag to a bull.

"They discourage some, but they encourage the risk-takers.

"If you put prohibition in you have to actually be able to police it. When you think about places like Hunua Falls, how can you put lifeguards there? It's simply not logical to be able to do that.

"If we have a dangerous surf running in Piha or Muriwai, we don't have the legislative power to ban people going in the water. I'd hate to think that we would have. That's not the New Zealand way at all. There's got to be a more sensible way."

Typical Kiwi attitudes towards safety in water were proving hard to shift.

"Changing male behaviour is a serious challenge in lots of health issues, and when they're young they're bulletproof," Dr Moran said.

He believes in "peer teaching" - where young males are encouraged to be cautious around water from people they can relate to and respect.

"Males are heavily influenced by other males. As males we listen to what our mates say, and we learn our norms from collective ignorance.

"So the thing to do in my opinion is to say let's use peer teaching," he said.

"We have very little safety education in high schools full stop and we certainly don't have any targeted male water safety programmes which address these issues."

Matt Kerr. Photo / Supplied
Matt Kerr. Photo / Supplied

Matt Kerr knows first hand how supreme confidence in the water can backfire.

In his "youthful ignorance" - at age 17 - he decided to head out for a surf at Waipu Cove just after a storm.

"The sea was substantially rougher and bigger than it usually is, and I thought I was going to be okay but I got knocked out by my own surfboard in the whitewash," he said.

The now 24-year-old swallowed so much sea water that he was vomiting.

"Fortunately I had a big yellow surfboard so I was pretty easy to spot."

A fellow surfer who was heading in saw Mr Kerr and alerted lifeguards at the beach.

"About an hour and a half later a boat turned up and picked me up.

"Luckily I was surfing in front of a surf club. Although the beach was closed, there were people on the look out and an [inflatable rescue boat] in the vicinity.

"Had that not been the case I don't know what I would've done," he said.

Stranded out at sea 500m from the shore, Mr Kerr is certain he could easily have met a different fate.

He said New Zealand men's overestimating their ability in the water is a problem.

"Having been a lifeguard, I know it's a problem.

"Not that we think that we're stronger than nature but that we don't appreciate the force that's unseen. We think we can assess the situation a lot better than we actually can."

- NZ Herald

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