Northland's lifeguards are preparing their safety gear and oiling the IRB engines as the last long weekend for the year kicks off today.
With the official start of the swimming season, Surf Life Saving Northern Region together with its lifeguards remind the public to stay safe and responsible on the beach.
Labour weekend sees five surf life saving clubs – Whangārei Heads, Ruakaka, Waipu Cove, Mangawhai Heads and Ahipara – getting into action as lifeguards are jumping into the cold Pacific for refresher courses and first aid training.
Lifeguards will be present at their clubs over the coming weekends for observational patrols and will be responding to emergencies.
Regular beach patrols on weekends and public holidays will start at the end of November, with the exception of Ahipara where patrolling traditionally starts in December.
Additional patrols will come on board during the summer holidays to keep beaches safe throughout the week, and will also look after Baylys Beach where lifeguards are currently waiting for new facilities to be built.
Matthew Williams, chief executive officer of Surf Life Saving Northern Region, said the surf clubs were excited to start the new season together with the public and extended a "huge thank you" to all SLS volunteers.
Williams said lifeguards would be working closely with the public to ensure beaches are a safe environment for people to enjoy.
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Within the past 12 months, Northland surf clubs put their training into practice and undertook a total of 34 rescues, 86 assisted rescues and 14 major first aids.
Despite the SLS efforts, the region counted eight fatalities and 18 hospitalisations in water-related incidents in the previous season.
Water Safety New Zealand figures show an average eight to nine deaths annually over the past 10 years, which adds to a total of 88 deaths since 2009.
Drowning-related deaths have been declining since 2013, but Northland's beaches still rank third deadliest after Auckland and the Bay of Plenty.
"We definitely want to look at reducing the drowning numbers this season," Williams said.
He said to stay safe at the beach and in the water there are few rules to follow:
• Choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the flags.
• Ask the patrol for advice, even if you know the beach well, because water conditions can change regularly.
• Don't overestimate your or your children's ability to cope in the conditions, especially in large swell.
• Keep young children within arm's reach at all times. And never swim or surf alone, always get a friend or someone else to swim with you.
• If you get into trouble while out in sea, it is important not to panic, but to relax and float to conserve your energy. To signal for help from a lifeguard, raise your hand.
Williams said swimmers shouldn't be shy about asking for assistance from the lifeguards: "As soon as you know you're in trouble, you should let the lifeguards know."
If you see a swimmer in distress, alert the patrolling lifeguards or call 111 for emergency services.
One of the most dangerous traps in the water are rip currents or rips. They are caused by interactions between incoming and breaking waves and the shape of the sea bed.
Waves travelling from deep to shallow water eventually break near the shoreline resulting in a build-up of water.
Once the water is returning seaward, strong, narrow and often channellised rip currents can flow through the surf zone and some distance beyond.
To identify rips, look for regions of deeper, darker water with less wave breaking activity between white water patches.
Rips can also appear as rippled or bumpy areas with criss-crossed waves.
Surf Life Saving advises people to fight the urge to instantly swim back towards the beach if they get caught in a current but to "ride" the rip until it stops and then to safely swim back to shore.
"The rip current will not pull you under the water and is just taking you for a ride offshore," the SLS safety instructions say. "Stay calm, relax and float. Nobody is stronger than a rip."
Whangārei Heads is known to be an exposed beach that can get some larger swell and occasional rips which can make swimming dangerous.
During the previous season, the Whangārei Heads surf club was involved in more than 60 per cent of the rescues in Northland, and while lifeguard numbers are currently low, club captain Josh Maxwell ensured Ocean Beach would be patrolled as usual.
Ahipara's surf club currently counts 35 members, which "isn't bad for our small area", club captain Tony Walker said.
The club will run a beach education programme this summer to teach students the hazards of the Far North coast.
Waipu's surf life savers are taking a similar preventive approach. To establish water safety awareness at unpatrolled beaches, club members have been travelling around Northland, educating beachgoers in the past years.
"We are a passionate, proactive, innovative club striving to make a big impact in drowning prevention," club captain Kath Manning said.
The club is nestled in front of Camp Waipu Cove which has a capacity of 1500, and the Waipu population of 3700 usually triples over summer with holiday makers.
"Over the peak summer period we have hundreds of swimmers between the flags to watch over," Manning said.
She said the club was aiming to make water safety education a key part of their preventative role as lifeguards, and reduce incidents in Northland.
"At the Northern Region awards of excellence Waipu Cove SLSC won the Innovation of the Year [award] for our Beach Safety Education tour.
"We took 15 members and travelled over four days visiting five locations – Kai Iwi Lakes, Matai Bay, Taupō Bay, Cable Bay and Matapōuri – giving education sessions on how to spot a rip and what to do if you get stuck in a rip," Manning said.
The Waipu lifeguards hope to repeat their tour this season and have entered a competition to win a new IRB for their club - their existing two IRBs are getting old and worn.
Waipu belongs to a group of four national finalists for Vote the Boat, a BP campaign that will see one surf club win a new IRB, worth $25,000, by public vote.
Statistics by Water Safety NZ
Of 88 deaths by drowning since 2009, 32 occurred on beaches, five in a domestic environment, four in home pools, three in inland still waters, 21 offshore, eight in rivers and 15 in tidal waters.
Statistics by Surf Life Saving Northern Region
Last season SLS Northern Region counted:
30,984 preventative actions
105,041 members of the public involved
129 major first aids
769 minor first aids