In the past three years, the 65-plus age group has had the highest number of preventable drowning deaths in New Zealand, followed by those aged between 45–54. Men, meanwhile, are almost four times more likely to fatally drown in this country than women. Reporter Scott Yeoman follows one man's late-in-life journey to learn to swim, and finds his motivation is running deeper than it ever has before.
You can learn a lot looking below the surface.
It's 6pm on a Thursday. In a quiet lane at a busy public pool, outstretched fingers are being squeezed tightly together and sinking legs are trying to kick their way back up.
A submerged nose strains to breathe out bubbles.
Below the surface – face down, then to the side, then down again – Peter Oakes has his eyes wide open. His mind racing, even if his body isn't. He's staring at a big blue line running along the bottom of the pool.
"It tells me if I'm drifting off track."
Oakes is learning to swim. He's 56 years old.
All around him, small children are doing the same.
"There was a touch of self-consciousness," Oakes says, thinking back to his first lesson.
Last month he signed up for "improver" classes at Mount Maunganui's BayWave, about 20 minutes' drive from his home in Te Puke. He bought a pair of blue goggles and stepped out of his comfort zone, right into a warm 32-degree pool.
"I wasn't really embarrassed or anything, but I'm like, 'oh, shit' they're all young and swimming and I'm … I'm 56 years old."
Oakes, a support worker in the disability sector, has overcome personal battles before. Years ago, he was in the depths of despair but managed to climb out.
These days, thanks to that climb, he has a new lease of life. And with that has come new challenges.
Learning to swim is the latest.
This isn't a phobia. Oakes isn't scared of the water. He loves it.
He has surfed, body-surfed, wind-surfed, and spent time on boats, but has never swum well.
"I've always pretty much swum like a house brick."
Statistics on just how many adults can't swim in New Zealand are hard to come by.
However, a piece of research commissioned by Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) over the past few years goes some way to answering the question.
Last year, 85 per cent of the people who took part in an attitude and behaviour survey said they had learnt how to swim.
But only 59 per cent had swum at least 25 metres in any manner (including doggy paddle) within the past five years. That was down from the year before.
Just 53 per cent of the people said they had learnt some water survival skills.
"There's certainly more adults out there, generally across the country, who don't have basic water safety skills," WSNZ chief executive Jonty Mills says.
Oakes is conscious of his limits and of different dangers, such as rips. He doesn't venture out of his depth when he goes to the beach. He monitors the local conditions. He's always felt more confident on a board.
He also doesn't come from a family of swimmers.
"Oh, hell no, we don't swim, mate. Hell no. Neither my brothers nor my parents were really what you'd call swimmers."
Oakes says he did swimming lessons at school, but it felt uncomfortable and unnatural. He had no buoyancy.
Going down to the local pool for a few laps? It just wasn't him.
He has tried to change that before, when he was in his 20s. Back then, he was sporty and active – he did competitive road cycling and ran a lot, but struggled to swim any kind of distance.
One summer he got someone to teach him once a week. Gradually he built up confidence, but it still felt awkward and soon the lessons stopped and any progress he had made fell away.
Then, this year, after foot surgery, Oakes was doing some recovery in a pool and started enjoying being in the water.
"And I just thought, I would really like to try to get better at this."
So, he signed up.
Oh, hell no, we don't swim, mate. Hell no. Neither my brothers nor my parents were really what you'd call swimmers.
In any given week there can be as many as 50 adults registered for swimming classes at Tauranga swim school BaySwim. Ages range from 15 to 74.
There are beginners with specific goals in mind. Nervous swimmers who just want to be confident in deep water. There are also people who have had a scare way back in time and have now decided to overcome their fear. Or have moved here from a city or country where there weren't any beaches or swimming wasn't a big part of the culture.
Some adults watch their grandchildren or children learning to swim and suddenly realise they ought to learn too.
It's just getting dark when I arrive at BayWave.
It's a crisp wintry evening but inside, through the automatic sliding doors, past reception and into the pools area, it's warm and humid. There's that familiar whiff of chlorine hanging in the air and Miley Cyrus is playing on the speaker system over steady pool chatter. It's busy.
I find Oakes by the leisure pool waiting for his class to start.
This is the first time we've met. It's his fourth lesson.
He's a tall man, about 6ft. He says he's unfit but looks in reasonable shape.
Immediately friendly with a big smile and a quick laugh, he shakes my hand and is more than happy for me to watch his lesson when I ask.
I meet his teacher, 19-year-old Ella Moor, and a fellow student, 35-year-old Orchid Zhou.
She's a graphic designer at Comvita; a mum who also lives in Te Puke, having moved to New Zealand from China about two years ago. Zhou has never swum in the sea and wants that to change.
Her 5-year-old daughter is also learning to swim. She started first, and that – along with a desire to make the most of the region's beaches – motivated Zhou to sign up at BayWave.
She started with beginner classes last term and has now moved up. Her daughter is also making a lot of progress.
"She's learning faster than me," Zhou says.
She says her daughter thinks it's "awesome" that her mum is learning.
"Yes, never too old to learn."
The lane Zhou and Oakes are swimming in is 1.5m wide and just short of 25m long. The water is about 1.4m deep.
Over the 30-minute class, the two students follow each other up and down the lane, Moor crouched alongside them giving quiet reminders and words of encouragement.
They start. They stop. Breathe in. And set off again. The first exercise involves holding on to a kickboard with both hands and kicking, kicking, kicking. Then the floating device is put to one side and is replaced by freestyle.
Oakes only gets in a few slow, deliberate strokes before stopping. His kicking has fallen away, and his legs are sinking, dragging down the rest of his body. He stands up. Hands on hips. Then sets off again.
When he arrives at the end of the lane, arms outstretched – reaching – he touches the wall and straightens up, breathing heavily, a strained smile on his face. He blows out, water cascading from his lips. He pushes his goggles to the top of his head. Wipes his face. And puts his hands on his hips.
"Oxygen seems to be the biggest thing," he explains a bit later, with a laugh.
"It's sucking wind."
Next is breaststroke, again first with the kickboard.
Oakes looks awkward. His legs are all over the place, kicking out independently of each other. As he raises his head to breathe, the rest of his body sinks. But he perseveres. Stops. Stands up. Sets off again.
At one point, it looks like his whole body has sunk below the surface, but his leg and arm motions continue, and so for a short while he appears to be doing breaststroke under water.
He tries and fails a few more times to get a breath in without stopping and then, finally, he does it – his head quickly popping up for air, as he visibly fights to keep his upper body and torso on the surface. He manages a couple more strokes before stopping.
"I'm doing things that don't come naturally," Oakes says afterwards, when we sit down for a chat.
"Like some of the breaststroke stuff and lifting up the head, trying to breathe on the right-hand side (during freestyle) when I've always breathed on the left, and alternating."
He says he has a few things going over and over in his mind as he's swimming.
Like keeping his fingers together, not spread out. He quotes back the reason given to him.
"You get more power and a smoother stroke."
Also breathing out his nose under the water as he swims. And reaching forward more for a full-length stroke. And getting his elbow up. And kicking.
"This is stuff that I really haven't known what's right or what's wrong and I'm learning, and I feel better in the water now."
As we leave for the evening, Oakes is already looking ahead to the next lesson.
"I hope to be fitter and faster next week."
Oakes is single and has no kids.
He has been around the traps.
He tried banking after leaving high school, ran a Pizza Hut in his early 20s, got a degree in psychology, worked in project management in the health sector, spent time as a deckhand on Tauranga Harbour, and plodded along in several fishing and tackle shops.
He has written and self-published books and poetry.
His latest collection – "Pissed Sparrows & Dance Class" – is available on Amazon.com; it encompasses three decades of his poetry and talks of love, life, laughter and learning to dance. He went to his first ball at the age of 47.
"For somebody like me to learn to dance, that's about as awkward and uncomfortable as it's possible for me to be in this life," he says.
And yet he grew to enjoy it. Just like swimming.
I learned all of this at our second meeting, back at BayWave the following Tuesday morning.
Turns out Oakes couldn't wait for his next class. He has started going to the pools once or twice a week on his own to practise.
I find him in the leisure pool again, swimming freestyle up and down the lane.
When he reaches my end and stands up, there's that same smile. And the same signs of fatigue.
"Tired today," he shouts out. "Very tired."
Then he launches off again. There are fewer stops this time, he seems to be taking it slow and going through the motions. On some lengths, he makes it the whole way without standing up.
His kicking is still lacking. His legs are still sinking. Sometimes he's only breathing in on one side. But altogether his swimming appears less awkward and more fluid than at Thursday's session.
He says this is the first time in his life he feels comfortable swimming.
"I'm here for the long haul. Not just a few lessons."
He gets out and limps his way to the showers.
A "perfect storm" is brewing in New Zealand, says Water Safety New Zealand's Jonty Mills.
We are a country surrounded by water, with an increasingly diverse and ageing population.
Add to that the number of school pools closing, he says, and the level of water safety education kids are receiving nowadays, and we have a problem on our hands.
There were 397 preventable drowning deaths in New Zealand between 2014 and 2018. So far this year, there have already been more than 30.
Being able to swim doesn't equate to being safe in the water. Plenty of good swimmers drown, Mills says.
Water safety has many components – knowing your limits, understanding rips and currents and other dangers, acknowledging local conditions.
There were 397 preventable drowning deaths in New Zealand between 2014 and 2018.
However, while learning to swim does not guarantee your survival, it does increase your chances.
Data collected by Water Safety New Zealand on 62 of the drowning deaths between 2014 and 2018 showed more than half of the victims had a swimming ability described as "none" or "poor".
Since 2016, the organisation has been actively tackling the country's drowning problem through a national "Water Skills for Life" programme aimed at children in their formative years in primary school.
Mills says if people come out of the education system without basic water safety skills, they're very unlikely to obtain them in their adult years.
By then there are cost constraints, family priorities, and it becomes their own responsibility to get it done.
"And I think there's also almost an embarrassment factor in a lot of cases."
He says while ideally, people learn water safety skills in their formative years, it's never too late to start.
Mount Maunganui Lifeguard Service veteran Kent Jarman has many of the same concerns.
A lifeguard for 53 years, he says he has seen the standards of swimming decline steadily.
"I think people think they're a lot better swimmers than they really are," Jarman says.
"And they're probably okay in dead calm water, but when you go to the beach, that doesn't happen very often. You soon get a few waves breaking on your head and then suddenly the whole environment changes."
Jarman sums up that false confidence like this.
"You ask probably 100 New Zealanders 'could you swim to save yourself?' and probably 90 of them would say 'yes'. But then if you turned and said to them 'could you swim non-stop for 400m?' I bet you get a different answer."
Oakes can't swim non-stop for 400m. Not yet.
One day, he may be able to swim to save his life. Or someone else's. In the meantime, though, he's swimming to live his life.
Below the surface, he continues to squeeze his fingers together and tries to kick up his legs. Breathing out his nose underwater is still a big focus. As is breathing in on both sides during freestyle. He keeps reaching forward, seeking out that fuller stroke.
At his fifth lesson, I arrive to see him swimming a whole length – breathing left, breathing right, alternating the whole way down. On the way back, he stops for a few short breaks but perseveres with the right technique. Left … Right … Left.
"Where's your togs?" he says when he gets to the end, looks up and sees me.
That initial moment of self-consciousness Oakes felt at his first class has quickly evaporated.
He says it didn't last long. He's happy to be there, in the water.
On either side of him, there are still kids getting lessons. But he's not fussed.
"People have been encouraging, but if somebody wasn't encouraging or thought there was a stigma, they can go to buggery, you know. I'm really not concerned what other people think."
I see his teacher, Ella Moor, reminding him about his elbow at one point. Oakes is listening intently, mirroring the arm motion she is showing him.
Moor says when Oakes first started the classes he didn't really have an idea about the technique of how to swim.
"And over the time that he's been in my classes I've given him tips and his technique's improved, which means that he can swim further. He's passionate about swimming now and he's more confident."
Progress is and will continue to be slow, she emphasises. Oakes understands that.
"This is not going to happen overnight," he says. "And that's okay."
He says he feels "half a per cent" fitter and is only getting a mouthful of water "every second or third time" now when trying to breathe in from both sides during freestyle.
Moor adds that he is "holding more water" with each stroke. I also notice his legs are starting to work together better, more in sync, when kicking in breaststroke.
So, what's different this time? He tried this in his 20s and failed. He was certainly fitter back then.
Oakes says he doesn't know. Maybe he's had a change of mindset. He has overcome personal battles since then, and that would have strengthened his resolve.
"Maybe I'm fatter," he says with a laugh. "I might be floating more."
He attributes a lot to the environment in which he is learning now – he can't stop raving about BayWave, its friendly, welcoming staff and his teacher, Moor.
But, there are also clues to be found in his support worker job, which he has stuck with for the past five years and finds a good fit.
He says it's interesting work and that watching people progress over time's great. Empathy's important. Patience is important.
"You're not looking for immediate change. It's over weeks and months and if you don't have the patience for that, it's not for you."
You can learn a lot looking below the surface.
Oakes initially signed up for five swimming lessons. Now he's signing up for more. He says he will continue with the classes for the foreseeable future. He might take the odd break and come back. And he's going to up the ante with his own practice and try to come three times a week.
In fact, he's coming back tomorrow.
"I feel good," he says.
"Every time I've come out of that pool, no matter how much I might have found it difficult, I feel a new lease of life ... it's invigorating."
How you can learn too
A number of swim schools provide lessons for adults throughout the Bay of Plenty.