The Far North District Council has been criticised for the lack of safety warnings or flotation devices at Cable Bay, where 54-year-old Palmerston North man Wairongoa Clarence Renata died on January 2, 2018.
Coroner Mary-Anne Borrowdale found that Renata's death may have been prevented if his family had apprehended the hazards present, in that they might have decided not to swim, to stay close to the shore or to use a flotation device.
She made several recommendations, and criticised the council for "complacency," including not having signs at the beach warning of its potential dangers or flotation devices if people did get into trouble.
Renata was at the beach with his children and others on January 2, 2018. When the children got into trouble in a rip he went into the water in an attempt to help them, calling for help as he did so: "Somebody save my children, help, help." Evidence to the inquest included a reference by family to the effect that Renata was not, to their knowledge, a strong swimmer.
He subsequently got into difficulty. He was seen towards the north end of the bay, about 75m from shore, calling for help. He sank beneath the water before a rescuer could reach him, and died, despite the best efforts of an ambulance crew. His 11-year-old daughter was also pulled from the sea in a serious condition, and taken to hospital, where she recovered.
Nick Mulcahy, Aquatic Risk Manager of Surf Lifesaving New Zealand, said Cable Bay was capable of representing a hazard to members of the public. It was classified as a wave-dominated reflective beach, and as such was prone to sudden changes in water depth close to the shore, dumping waves, rips and currents. The combination of waves, an incoming tide, rip currents and sudden changes in water depth posed considerable risks on the day Renata died.
Flotation devices would have made the Renata family more "resilient to these hazard factors," as was borne out by their rescuers being able to reach and assist them by using body boards and paddle boards. There were no apparent risk mitigations in place at that time.
''I have made enquiry of the Far North District Council, and it remains the case today that no water safety signage is in place at Cable Bay," Borrowdale said.
"In a response to my inquiry, the council stated that: 'Signage advising of rips was installed many years ago at Cable Bay Beach reserve, but was removed for reasons unknown and not replaced.'
''My internet search enquiries lead me to believe that water safety warnings for Cable Bay are also not given on regional promotional websites. The principal website appears to be www.doubtlessbay.co.nz, operated by Doubtless Bay Promotion Inc. On this website, in the beaches section, the text says simply this: 'Doubtless Bay has many fine and safe beaches for swimming and water sports. Here is a selection from the huge number of safe bathing beaches awaiting you in Doubtless Bay… Cable Bay: A beautiful pink-coral and golden sand beach with small lagoon and rock pools.' No information is supplied as to the applicable beach hazards, or how beach-goers might safely mitigate them.''
Three other men had drowned there, in 2001 and 2015.
Borrowdale noted that the Operation Flotation charitable trust had since installed five flotation devices at Doubtless Bay, two of them at Cable Bay. Asked why it had not installed water safety signage at Cable Bay following Renata's death, she was told that the two lifesaving devices were deemed to be sufficient.
The Operation Flotation trustees, it's "enthusiasts" and volunteers, were to be commended for their prompt, innovative and focused action to improve water safety in the Far North, showing what could be achieved with focus and determination, notwithstanding few financial resources, she added, but ''Equally, I am dissatisfied with the complacent approach taken by the Far North District Council to ensuring the mitigation of beach hazards in this region. It is to my mind wholly unsatisfactory that there remain no water safety warning signs at the approaches to Cable Bay beach. It is apparent from the evidence that this beach is deceptively safe-looking, but in fact contains life-threatening hazards that are hard for people to detect.
''Given that the internet is a primary resource for travellers who seek outdoor activities, it is unacceptable that the internet resources pertaining to this popular beach region contain no water safety warnings for Cable Bay, and no safety advice to beach users. Ideally, such warning information should also be available in printed leaflets and other material, but I am less concerned about this, given that the internet is now so heavily used for travel and outdoors information.''
Coroner Borrowdale made a number of recommendations, some of them proposed by Surf Lifesaving NZ, including that the council erect prominent and informative water safety signage at all approaches to the beach at Cable Bay, as well as at Tāipa, Cooper's Beach and elsewhere in Doubtless Bay, that Doubtless Bay Promotion Inc amend its website to include prominent warning of beach hazards, and that the council expand the 'Visiting the Far North' section of its website to incorporate water safety warnings and information for Cable Bay and any other areas with known hazards.