Summer may not have arrived just yet, but Surf Life Saving New Zealand’s volunteers have already been busy saving lives.
Rescues on October 12 and 13, resulted in eight people being saved, and were carried out successfully simply because surf lifeguards were on the beach training in preparation for the coming season.
They were in the right place, at the right time.
Last season, surf lifeguards put in more than 237,000 patrol hours on the beach resulting in 702 life-threatening rescues, while helping another 1622 people out of a potentially dangerous situation.
Labour Weekend marks the official start of Surf Life Saving New Zealand’s 2019/2020 season with a number of clubs raising their iconic red and yellow flags.
For other clubs, the season begins in November.
New Zealand’s 4900 volunteer surf lifeguards have not stopped since dropping the flags at the end of last summer, clocking up many thousands of hours of training, courses and exams over winter and responding to multiple call-out missions.
“Our guys are training all year round,” says Surf Life Saving New Zealand National Lifesaving Manager Allan Mundy.
“They often end up saving lives at the same time.”
The incidents within two days of each other earlier this month highlight the importance of Surf Lifeguards being fit, trained and ready every day of the year.
On Saturday, October 12, seven surfers were rescued by surf lifeguards who were at Raglan Surf Life Saving Club as part of the annual Zespri IRB Development Camp.
During the training the tide dropped and a large rip started to form and as a result a surfer was dragged out.
Spotters involved in the training saw him and fully qualified surf lifeguards and IRB drivers were sent to rescue him. A further six inexperienced surfers needed assistance to get back to shore.
The following day, on Sunday, October 13, a group of instructors were teaching new surf lifeguards at Piha Beach when the club vice-captain spotted someone who appeared to be in trouble in the water heading out past Lion Rock.
Two surf lifeguards launched the IRB while another – someone who had just qualified in patrol support the previous weekend – kept his eyes on the drifting person.
The two volunteers found an unresponsive 28-year-old woman face down in the water behind Lion Rock and pulled her into the IRB. Back on shore she was given emergency first aid until an ambulance arrived. She was rescued just in time and is expected to make a full recovery.
Both of these rescues show how surf lifeguards being in the right place at the right time can save lives – not just during patrol season.
In the 2018/2019 season, 16 people tragically drowned on New Zealand beaches outside of patrol hours or away from lifeguarded beaches.
It could have been a lot worse if it weren’t for the surf lifeguards who during the same period rescued 702 people.
Without those volunteers, there would have been 717 drownings. That’s almost twice the 2018 national road toll, which saw nearly 400 people die on our roads.
“These are preventable deaths,” says Alan. “It’s something that should never happen.”
Alan says surf lifeguards work extremely hard to keep people safe by patrolling beaches, and operating Search and Rescue squads that are activated after the patrols have gone home and throughout the winter months.
He says nobody is stronger than a rip and swimmers need to help surf lifeguards help them.
The message is simple.
“Swim between the red and yellow flags at a lifeguarded beach and remember the 3Rs – Relax and float, Raise your hand and Ride the rip.”
Alan says too often people over estimate their abilities and under estimate the conditions.
“People think they are able, but haven’t done an honest check of themselves. If they are in doubt of their ability in conditions then stay out, don’t go in.”
Rip currents are the main cause of rescues performed at a beach, and Alan encourages people to learn how to spot them before getting in the water.
Often they appear as regions of deeper, darker water with less wave breaking activity between areas of white water, or a patch of surface water that is rippled or bumpy with criss-crossed waves compared to areas either side of this section of water.
“If you’re unsure that what you’re looking at is a rip, don’t get in the water. If in doubt, stay out,” says Alan.
“But if you do get into a rip, it’s important to stay calm, relax and float on your back. The rip current will not pull you under, and nor will it take you out to sea.
“It may take you a little way out but often the water will circulate and bring you into shallower water where you can stand up. While floating on your back just stick your hand up, and either a surf lifeguard will get you, or someone will call 111 and get help to you. At this time of year, you can last a long time floating on your back in the surf,” says Alan.
SLSNZ Beach Safety Messages:
Choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the flags
Read and understand the safety signs - ask a surf lifeguard for advice as conditions can change regularly
Don't overestimate your ability or your children's ability to cope in the conditions
Always keep a very close eye on young children in or near the water - keep them within arm’s reach at all times
Get a friend to swim with you - never swim or surf alone
Watch out for rip currents, they can carry you away from shore. If caught in a rip current remember the 3Rs - Relax and float, Raise your hand and Ride the rip
Be smart around rocks: When fishing, never turn your back towards the sea and always wear a lifejacket
If in doubt, stay out!
If you see someone in trouble, call 111 and ask for Police
Be sun smart – Slip, Slop, Slap and Wrap. Protect your skin and eyes from the sun's damaging rays.
Surf Life Saving New Zealand is a charity. If you would like to support them this summer, please make a donation online at www.surflifesaving.org.nz