Sink or Swim? It’s a current affair

It’s tragic. Another life lost in the waters off the coast of NZ, it’s almost a daily occurrence at the moment. Kiwis have an affinity with water that runs deep. It represents so much of our identity as a nation. It feeds us, we play in it, compete on it and in it, enjoy it’s sounds and being an island nation, there is quite a lot of access to it. Do we respect it? Do we have a collective arrogance or sense of entitlement around our water ways?

The few times I have ditched my preferred agnostic spiritualist beliefs and fully embraced Jesus have been in the sea, usually the west coast. I’ve had a couple of ‘OMG I’m going to (or someone I know is going to) die – moments’. Panic is perhaps one of the biggest risk factors, that and a lack of ability and competency in the water. Personally, I believe we have a tendency to confuse water ‘confidence’ with ‘competence’. I think being a ‘strong swimmer’ is a very lose definition that can range from ‘I can doggy paddle across a pool so long as I can touch the bottom’ to ‘I can swim a couple of km while carrying a sack of bricks’.

But what about the organisations charged with providing the information to help people understand the risks? Well I checked out the Water Safety New Zealand site and I have to say it’s a bit wet. The Water safety code gives 4 guidelines that are in my opinion pretty weak and non specific.

1: Be prepared – simply learn to swim, survive, set rules, use correct equipment and know conditions
2: Look after yourself and others – play ‘close’ attention to children, swim with others and between flags if patrolled. We could do better NZ supervising children in the water.
3: Be aware of dangers – enter water feet first and obey signs, don’t swim if drinking alcohol– that’s it?
4: Know your limits – probably the most subjective and problematic guideline

So what is it exactly that people just don’t ‘get’? Well I have a hunch that many people rarely consider the hydrodynamics (beyond rips) of water to be lethal. A lot of the worry and fear about swimming in the sea is about sharks or sting rays, when realistically the chances of death by shark pale in comparison to drowning. We should just break water safety down into pure science. Here are my personal choices for addition info:

1Litre of water weighs a Kg (roughly…there are a few variables to consider). Extrapolate that to 1cubic meter we get 1000kg or a metric tonne. So when water moves it has momentum – mass x velocity. I think Tsunami are perhaps the best example of the concept of inertia to devastating effect. I’ve struggled to keep my footing in water below my knees at Piha, and I am not lacking mass, imagine how a small body would fare. Now if you are struggling to visualise that you could think of the ocean as a sea of vehicles. Some have heavy traffic-heavy trucks for example, some light-cars, motorbikes, some just bikes and skate boards. If you heard someone telling kids to go play in front of the trucks or on the train tracks, I’d hope most people would find a way to politely suggest it isn’t safe. Unfortunately it’s not always easy to tell from just looking.

Then there is the density of water. There is a curious thing about water, when it is full of bubbles (aerated) it loses it’s ability to keep things afloat like bodies. So when the surf is pumping and there is lots of white water – it is bubbles and so you sink due to the temporary lower density! Those not wearing a wetsuit or using a board of some kind will definitely find themselves struggling to keep on the surface. This little piece of info is sorely lacking and probably explains why those who are generally ‘strong swimmers’ come to grief especially if alcohol is added in.

Alcohol and swimming do not mix at all. But I need to put my hand up and say ‘I’ve done it’. Aside from the decision making impairment, alcohol does interesting things to blood, but specifically it reduces its ability to carry oxygen efficiently. This is kind of important if you need to do some serious swimming.

More explicit information needs to be available in many languages…including drunken westie. Ok enough making waves for today.

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