Drowning surge last summer has surf lifesavers urging care

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Official patrols of New South Wales beaches will not start for another month, but swimmers and surfers are already being warned to take care this summer.

Thirty-nine people drowned along the state’s coast last financial year, up seven on the year before but still well below the year before that, when 53 people lost their lives to coastal drowning in NSW.

Even before the iconic red and yellow flags have gone up — the season starts on September 29 — crews have been called out to rescue a paddle boarder from the water at Bennetts Headland, near Forster on the mid-north coast.

Conditions were rough on Sunday afternoon because of a building southerly swell when reports came in that a paddle boarder was in distress off Bennetts Headland.

He was rescued by a crew from the Forster Surf Life Saving Club and checked over by paramedics before being released without injury.

Surf Life Saving New South Wales north coast manager Tony O’Mara said there was a simple message for the public ahead of the warmer months.

“People have just got to swim to their capacity, swim at patrolled beaches, swim with friends and just keep an eye out for each other,” he said.

“You’ve got to know what your capabilities are, that’s the most important thing and to reduce that risk, swim between the flags … but if you’re a surfer, just let people know where you’re going, don’t surf alone, surf with friends, and know your capabilities.”

Mr O’Mara is warning people to be aware conditions can change quickly, and they did not have to be far into the water to be caught in a rip.

Drones an important tool for surf lifesavers

Drones will again be used on the state’s beaches this summer to spot sharks and bait balls, but also to help rescue people in distress.

Last summer a drone was used in a world-first at Lennox Head, when just hours after it was unveiled it was used to drop a flotation device to two teenage boys.

A drone has also been used to assist in retrieving the body of a man who had drowned.

Mr O’Mara said plans for the deployment of drones were still being finalised, but they would be one of the tools available to lifesavers.

“The technology is allowing us to buy time so if you can get the drone out there, drop a pod, it provides time for the guys on the boards to get out there or an [inflatable rescue boat] to get out there and rescue,” he said.

“It’s one of the tools, it’s not the be-all and end-all because you’ve got to get that pod dropped at the right spot at the right time and people are fatigued, so that’s a harder one as well.”

He said drones were not only useful for helping people in distress.

“The drone just gets a wider area to view, particularly on our long beaches,” Mr O’Mara said.

“Our patrols can then use the eyes in the sky to see what the conditions are. For sharks or bait balls that are coming through, drones are absolutely fantastic.

“The drone goes over the top, it gives a little more confidence for people on the beach to know that there’s that extra set of eyes looking after them, and that’s been really successful.”

‘The sea is the boss’

Brian Barrow and Errol ‘Jay’ Corr have recently been recognised for rescuing a woman from rough conditions at a Port Macquarie beach.

Both men jumped in to help the woman with barely a second thought, but said their experience in the ocean had given them the confidence to do so.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the water before on a surf ski so I was reasonably confident, but I knew I had to not panic, that was the main thing,” Mr Barrow said.

Both men have been humbled by the Commendation for Brave Conduct they have been awarded.

They said they felt honoured but they were not heroes, but the woman they rescued, Joy Carter, feels differently.

“I was very fortunate they put their own lives at risk to save me, a stranger,” she said.

“Not everyone would do that and I probably owe my life to them … I was in serious trouble, I knew I was.”

Mr Corr hopes the story acts as a warning to others and encourages them to find out as much about beach conditions as possible.

“The whole thing is it’s education on the sea, the sea’s the boss, there’s nothing you can do about it, so that’s basically it,” he said.

Plenty of education available

Surf Life Saving NSW runs a range of education programs.

“For people coming to the coast on holidays we run our beach to bush program, which runs throughout rural NSW, and again it’s about educating those people that are going to the beach what to look out for,” Mr O’Mara said.

“There’s a plethora of material also now on the internet in relation to rips and that’s available on Surf Life Saving NSW and Surf Life Saving Australia websites.

“And get the kids learning to swim because that’s the thing you can do the most, not panicking, knowing how to swim, knowing how to float, that’s what it’s all about.”

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