Dad of two Leslie Gelberger went for a swim one morning and never came home. As authorities try to solve the puzzle of his death, there is growing concern over the dangers on our overcrowded waters. Russell Blackstock reports.

It is 7.30am on Thursday at Auckland's scenic Narrow Neck Beach and already a handful of regular swimmers are out on the water.

On the shore, dog walkers are enjoying the early morning sunshine and the beach cafe is about to open for the day.

It is a week since teacher Leslie Gelberger set off for an ocean swim from Narrow Neck's golden sands and never returned. The next day his body was found along the coast at Mairangi Bay with a leg missing.

Narrow Neck residents and swimmers say the incident has left them feeling bruised. Nothing like this has happened before at the pristine beach next to the wealthy North Shore suburb of Devonport.

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Mary Glanfield has lived locally for 60 years and strolls the beach with her dog every day.

"Swimmers I know are in shock something like this could happen here, because it is regarded as being very safe," she says. "There was also another body found at the beach just along at Takapuna recently and when I walk around the rocks I'm now worried what I might find."

Ocean swimmer and veteran triathlete Chris Vincent emerges from the sea after completing a lengthy beach circuit. He does this regularly and lives across the road from his beloved stretch of sand.

Although saddened at the death of a fellow swimmer, he has no intention of staying out of the water.

"It is usually sharks that people are nervous of out there but they have never bothered me," he says. "What happened is terrible and some people are worried but it won't put me off."

What happened to Gelberger, father to two young children, respected Westlake Girls High School teacher and experienced ocean swimmer?

Was he struck by a boat? Did he drift off course? Did he suffer a medical event? Speculation is rife in Narrow Neck and beyond.

Leslie Gelberger who died while swimming at Narrow Neck beach. Photo/Supplied
Leslie Gelberger who died while swimming at Narrow Neck beach. Photo/Supplied

The focus of the ongoing police investigation is whether he was hit by a Ports of Auckland pilot boat.

If that proves the case, it still prompts questions about how such a thing can happen in the city's water playground. Ports of Auckland has said it will conduct an internal investigation once the police probe is complete.

New Zealand's most successful Olympian, kayaker Ian Ferguson, knows more than most the dangers that lurk on the waters around Auckland. Ferguson competed at four Olympic Games, winning three gold medals in Los Angeles in 1984. He lifted gold and silver at the Games in Seoul four years later.

He sold his business, Ferg's Kayaks, last year, but for 25 years he took thousands of tourists and locals out on the water and on trips from Auckland's Okahu Bay across to Rangitoto Island and Devonport.

These days Ferguson is general manager of the new Vector Wero Whitewater Park at Wiri, South Auckland. He recalls a number of narrow escapes on the water, including when a power boat sliced straight through one of his tandem kayaks on Lake Rotorua. Remarkably, no one was hurt.

He remembers another incident in Auckland's harbour a few years back when a kayaker was run over by a boat.

"It wasn't one of my kayaks but it was just before dark and the guy was in a bright yellow boat and had a matching life jacket on, and still he wasn't seen," Ferguson says. "It was a miracle he wasn't injured.

"I have heard of an awful lot of near-misses that swimmers and kayakers have had with boats and sometimes windsurfers, and I've heard of speedboats running ashore in the dark straight on to the beach."

Ferguson warns light conditions have a bearing on the likelihood of being hit by a passing vessel.

"In certain conditions it is easy to see a kayaker or a swimmer from one direction but they are pretty much invisible from another. On rare occasions I used to cancel trips to Rangitoto if the light wasn't right and the wind was chopping up the water. It can be a fast-changing environment out there.

"But I wouldn't like to see too many rules and regulations being introduced as everyone regards the waterways as their playground.

"If people using the water for recreation stick to their designated zones and use common sense, in general they should be fine."

The Gelberger tragedy is unusual but should perhaps not come as a surprise.

Consider the numbers.

The most recent data from Sport New Zealand's Sport and Active Recreation Survey estimates one million New Zealanders swim every year. On top of that, 646,000 people fish annually.

Forty per cent of New Zealanders take part in a recreational activity at a beach or by the sea and 29 per cent participate in a recreational activity in or on the sea.

In addition, new research released by Maritime NZ estimates more than 2.3 million New Zealanders enjoy recreational boating annually, in almost 977,000 boats.

According to Water Safety New Zealand, 387 people died in preventable drowning incidents in New Zealand in the past five years

Of these, 64 occurred in the Auckland region. In addition, 85 people died in preventable drowning incidents on beaches in New Zealand in the past five years, 20 of them on Auckland beaches.

In the past five years, New Zealand beaches have seen 131 hospitalisation incidents. Of these, 60 were in Auckland.

In the past five years, New Zealand beaches have seen 131 hospitalisation incidents. Of these, 60 were in Auckland. Photo/Brett Phibbs
In the past five years, New Zealand beaches have seen 131 hospitalisation incidents. Of these, 60 were in Auckland. Photo/Brett Phibbs

Water Safety's chief executive, Jonty Mills, believes there is still plenty of room for improvement.

The demographics of people using the waterways and beaches is changing and this is bringing a whole set of new problems.

"In Auckland in particular an increasing number of older people are taking part in water-based activities," he says. "And there are increasing numbers of people from overseas coming to live here, many of them from countries that don't have an aquatic background like we have.

"Having access to the water is part of Kiwi life and most of us like to play in it. The trouble is many people, males in particular, tend to overestimate their abilities and underestimate the risks.

"We need a change in our attitude and culture to water safety in this country."

Mills says although most people are aware of deaths and drownings, they don't realise the massive impact caused by injuries on the water, including brain damage from near-drowning incidents.

"The social and economic impact on people because of this is massive."

Mills says the focus of Water Safety is now on education. Significant investment will be ploughed into educating kids from 5 to 13 years old about staying safe on the water.

"In recent years we have seen an increase in activities such as jet skiing and paddleboarding and new activities are arriving all the time. It is really challenging staying on top of it.

"Every kid in this country should have access to basic safety skills on the water. This is our No 1 priority and it is a responsibility of us all.

"If we don't do this, more and more people won't have these skills and that can only mean a spike in the numbers of drownings and accidents in the future."

G

elberger was a strong swimmer and had participated in the New Zealand Ocean Swim Series, which has 8000 registered members.

The organisation's chief executive, Scott Rice, said he was saddened and distressed by the death of one of their own and would be issuing safety guideline reminders before the next series this summer.

"In general, it is pretty safe to swim in the Auckland area," he says.

"But it makes sense to take simple precautions like swimming with a buddy, wear a brightly coloured cap and swim along a beach instead of going straight out."

One positive is Maritime NZ is reporting increasing numbers of people are now wearing lifejackets when on the water, after a number of high-profile safety campaigns.

Initial results from a new national on-the-water survey show 96 per cent of boaties are following the lifejacket rules, and the director of Maritime NZ, Keith Manch, is urging boaties to keep up the good work.

"These are excellent results. Wearing your lifejackets is the single most important thing you can do to help keep yourself safe on the water," he says.

"This research suggests that message is getting through and boaties are doing the right things. We want that to continue.

"Plan and prepare before you go on the water and remember the commonsense advice of the safer boating code: Wear your lifejacket, take two waterproof ways to call for help, check the marine weather forecast, avoid alcohol and be a responsible skipper."

But lifejackets will not help swimmers and boats colliding in our increasingly congested harbour.

Back at Narrow Neck another local walking his dog, Greg Southcombe, is concerned at the distance some lone swimmers get from the beach.

"There has never been an accident here before that I'm aware of, but a hell of a lot of swimmers go a long way out," he says.

"Further out there it is a very busy channel and that has got to be a risk."