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This summer NZME is helping Surf Life Saving to help save lives. The charity relies on the goodwill of thousands of volunteers, fundraising, grants and sponsorship to keep our beaches patrolled. Here's your chance to help raise money for new equipment and lifeguard training.


There's something in our Kiwi psyche that makes us rush in and help when someone is in trouble, usually without giving a second thought to our own safety.

But when it comes to beach rescues, this heroic action sadly ends in tragedy for the rescuer far too often.

"Typically someone who is in trouble will panic and they will grab the first thing they can and if it's you, you are in big trouble," said Surf Life Saving NZ CEO Paul Dalton.

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More than 100 people have drowned in New Zealand since 1980, including 11 since 2015, while going to the rescue of someone in trouble.

Often they haven't stopped to think through the dangers of the rescue - things like the conditions they are going into or their own ability in the water. Sometimes they are simply exhausted before they get to the person in trouble.

Dalton said people should ideally call 111 and get others to go for backup before attempting a resuce. They should also see if there's anyway of getting to person without getting into the water and, if not, take a floatation device of some sort with them.

"It's really hard to get people to think and plan ahead, it's human nature to rush out and help."

New Zealand has a shamefully high drowning toll - 66 people died in preventable drownings - just over a quarter while swimming at the beach - last year.

Despite the numbers are tracking downwards Water Safety NZ CEO Jonty Mills says even one death is one too many.

"Historically we have an unenviable position where we are towards the top end of fatal drownings in the developed world.

He said the three main reasons for that are the environment, a high participation rate and our behaviour and attitude towards the sea.

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Water Safety CEO Jonty Mills says we have one of the worst drowning rates in the OECD. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
Water Safety CEO Jonty Mills says we have one of the worst drowning rates in the OECD. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

About 90 per cent of Kiwis enjoy the water in some shape or form be it fishing, boating or swimming.

"It's who we are, part of Kiwi culture, almost part of our DNA so we have extremely highly participation."

Mills said New Zealand has the 10th longest coastline in the world and although our sea seems welcoming it can be "incredible unforgiving" as it is colder than many other places and has lots of rips and currents.

The third factor stems from our Kiwi psyche, particularly with males says Mills, of "she'll be right": we are risk takers without often thinking through the consequences.


About 80 per cent of drowning victims are men and historically about a third have been young Kiwi males aged between 15-34.

"There's that element of overestimating ability and underestimating risk.

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"If I talk broadly there's two reasons people drown, excluding toddlers. [It's] because they didn't have the skills or confidence to undertake the activity that they are doing or get themselves out of trouble if they get into trouble.

"Secondly and, sadly in most cases [it's] males, they make bad decisions and I can't sugar coat that."

Those decisions are often simple things - swimming outside of the flags or in the evening when no one is around.


INTERACTIVE: Coastal drownings by region for the past 10 years statistic interactive
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READ MORE: Couple nearly drown after ignoring lifeguards
READ MORE: Why isn't Surf Life Saving funded?
READ MORE: Lifeguard rescues two young girls from heavy surf


Changing trends have introduced new challenges for those trying to patrol the beaches. Mills said jet skis have become cheaper so more people are taking to the water.

Stand-up paddleboarding has grown in popularity - a sport that looks easy in social media posts but is often harder than it looks and lifeguards are seeing an increase in people being swept out to sea on them.

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"In Wellington you see people start close to the shore and they end up blown out in the Cook Strait. They are pretty light and manoeuvrable things. It all comes back to those general messages of knowing your own limits and being aware of the risks and the dangers and being prepared for what it is you are undertaking.

Changing trends like Stand Up Paddleboarding has created new challenges for lifeguards. Photo / NZ Herald
Changing trends like Stand Up Paddleboarding has created new challenges for lifeguards. Photo / NZ Herald

People are also going to beaches that aren't manned by lifeguards or wanting to swim outside the flags or later into the evenings and away from the crowds.

Many of our children are now growing up in an era where school swimming pools have closed and many parents can't afford private lessons.

A 2016 report found only a quarter of schools now have adequate water safety education.

In the face of this, Mills said there is a general expectation in New Zealand that "someone will turn up to help if you get into trouble".

"Kiwis expect lifeguards to be on beaches, coastguard boats to go out and rescue people, us to be teaching and educating kids [water safety]. The expectation is almost an inherent right for every Kiwi kid to learn how to swim. Someone will turn up to help if you get into trouble."

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Despite that expectation, there isn't any Government funding to make that happen and those who are out there saving lives are doing it out of the goodness of their own hearts.

Mills' advice to anyone going near the water is to know your abilities and take safety precautions like swimming between the flags and leaving the water once lifeguards pack up for the day.

It's also to try and find a safe way of helping someone who is in trouble, rather than rushing in straight away.

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