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What's behind New Zealand's high drowning rate?

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There are well-known physical and mental benefits from swimming as well as potential hazards.

Twice a week, Karen Henning-Hansen heads to her local pool to spend 30 minutes lane swimming and aqua-jogging. The Wellington woman has been taking the plunge regularly for 25 years – she’s so committed she was back in the pool as soon as possible after surgery for breast cancer several years ago. She says it helped prevent the oedema, or swelling, that can be associated with having lymph nodes removed.

For her, swimming provides a good work-out (as long as she resists the temptation to do “aquachatting” rather than aquajogging). It’s also relaxing and mood lifting. “I don’t always feel like going swimming, but never in my life have I regretted doing it – I always come out feeling better.”

Henning-Hansen enjoys it so much she describes getting into the pool as a bit like being caressed: “The water feels like velvet on my skin.”

The physical and mental-health benefits of swimming are well documented. A study of more than 80,000 British adults, published by Swim England in 2017, found that the activity can boost life expectancy and help reduce stress. The study also found that swimming is good for strength and balance.

Last October, Swim England released a second study based on a YouGov poll of 1.4 million British adults that found swimming helps ease the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Auckland water-safety expert Kevin Moran is well aware of how enjoyable swimming is. As a former international swimmer, he’s in the pool most days and is very familiar with what he describes as the sheer pleasure of being immersed in water: “It’s a wonderful experience.”

But Moran, a University of Auckland researcher and a board member of Drowning Prevention Auckland, is also aware of the dangers associated with being in the water – especially in the holiday season, when drowning numbers spike.

Drowning is the third-highest cause of accidental death in the country, after car accidents and falls. In 2017, 92 people died in preventable drownings (as opposed to non-preventable drownings from such causes as car accidents or suicide, which took 13 lives in 2017); another 148 people were hospitalised for 24 hours or longer following near-drownings.

Most of the deaths occurred in open water and were associated with activities such as swimming, boating, fishing and diving; only 10 occurred in a swimming pool. About a third were the result of what’s called accidental immersion, such as falling into a river when the bank collapses. Of those who drowned, 80% were male.

“Most of the drownings that will occur this summer will be the result of people underestimating the risk and overestimating their ability,” says Moran. “These are primarily male ‘diseases’, so it’s no surprise that 80% of drownings in New Zealand are males.”

He says being a good swimmer is just one of the skills needed to prevent drowning. Even if you can happily plough up and down your local pool, you won’t necessarily be able to cope with being fully clothed in the open sea or a cold river or lake. “We’ve got to get away from this idea that swim equals safe.”

Rather than swimming competency, he prefers to talk about water competency. This includes being able to float on your front and your back, being able to swim with clothes on, being able to swim on your front, back or side, and being able to use a personal flotation device such as a life jacket.

He recommends practising these things, preferably in the safe environment of a swimming pool, as he does when he teaches children. “You can simulate being in open water by having one child floating and the other children standing and splashing them.”

And should you see someone in difficulty in the water this summer, resist the temptation to act the hero and dive in to rescue them unless you have some kind of flotation device, such as a life jacket or even a boogie board or chilly bin, to put between you and the drowning person.

“If you don’t have a flotation device and they get anywhere near you, you will drown as well. Drowning people are incredibly strong.”

This article was first published in the January 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.