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Surf Life Saving Australia public sign warning of rips in the surf and for swimmers to bathe between the flags.

I was shocked to hear Adam Weir at the NSW Coastal Conference in November last year report on the number of drownings on the NSW coast in 2016. If I recall correctly the number was 53, a record. Since then the number has increased during the holiday period with the total including inland drownings, matching the road toll. This has created much anguish for affected families as well as those involved in rescues and in providing medical attention.  Words like heartbreak, grief and tragedy attempt to capture the impact, but one can only imagine how devastating it must be for the parents and loved ones of those who died.

Adam works for Surf Life Saving Australia. He has presented at several state and national coastal conferences. He is one of many who do a fantastic job in trying to prevent people from getting into difficulties. I always try to attend his talks. These talks include information on risk under different circumstances often in association with coastal researchers.

For many years Surf Life Saving Australia has joined with academics to learn more about the nature of coastal risk that may adversely harm surfers, swimmers, rock fishers and rock walkers. My first association with science and the surf goes back to 1961 when I met up with the late Peter McKenzie. Peter was a long-standing member of Dee Why Surf Club. He was a geologist with an interest in surf zone processes including the behaviour of rip currents. In more recent years Ian Eliot, Andy Short and Rob “Dr Rip” Brander have undertaken experiments in surf dynamics with the intent of providing more useful information to all those involved in surf lifesaving. Andy has surveyed beaches around Australia and overseas and designed a classification of risk that gives a consistent base for those in the field. Rob is remarkable in his on-going educational efforts to schools, community groups as well as in his university classes and research publications. He is famous for his use of dye along Sydney’s beaches to show the patterns of water flow in and around rip currents.

In his recent presentation, Adam noted that a mix of alcohol, age, gender and distance from the sea were factors that he felt were associated with many drownings in 2016. Most victims are male, many had been drinking, were under 30, did not swim between the flags, and lived away from the coast. I recall others telling me that few rescues ever involve people who are brought up close to the beach. He was very concerned that not enough education had been undertaken in western Sydney. Peter Wright, a rescue diver in the NSW Volunteer Rescue Association, was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 December 2016 as saying “the  No.1 reason people die or struggle in the water is because they panic, and that’s more likely to occur when people have been drinking”. He was focussing on river drownings, but it is apparent that some coastal drownings can also be linked to reckless behaviour in the evening following a drinking session.

At the 2012 Coastal Conference in Kiama, Adam was also involved in a paper that examined a typology of rocky coasts in the context of risk assessment ( Authors were Kennedy, Brighton, Weir, Sherker and Woodroffe). They produced statistics that highlighted how rock fishing is one of the most dangerous sports or past-times in Australia. But taking photos, walking on rock platforms, attempting to rescue those in the water in distress also contributed to the fatalities. Their paper took a similar approach to that developed by Short for beaches in the development of a site-specific risk index for rocky shores. This index could be ultimately integrated with weather and tidal information to indicate level of risk to users. The sign indicating number of deaths at Bare Island inside Botany Bay is a reminder to those walking on that rock platform of tragedies that have occurred there.

On the personal front, I can recall participating in surf zone experiments and measurements with Don Wright, Andy Short, Peter Cowell, Roger McLean and others where we were all challenged by wave and nearshore currents. As a teenager growing up at Bondi, I learnt certain rules of body surfing. These I have tried to convey to my children and grandchildren. Learning in the water is invaluable way to appreciate the forces waves can generate. I spoke once to the year five class of my granddaughter about waves, sand banks, and rip currents; the teacher was most appreciative as she was not aware of many of the risks I was trying to illustrate. It is not easy to demonstrate the dangers of the surf or being on rock platforms, but we are going to be continually challenged by the need to repeat what we know. Our beaches, surf zones, rock platforms are there to be enjoyed, but let us try to minimise the cost to life.

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect Bruce Thom’s thoughts and reference where appropriately: (c) ACS, 2017, posted 8th January 2017, for correspondence about this blog post please email admin@australiancoastalsociety.org