The sorrow of drowning

2011-02-09 00:00

THERE is something about losing a loved one to a drowning that is just that much more tragic. It may have something to do with the fact that a drowning inevitably occurs when families are enjoying themselves on holiday. One second they’re relaxed and happy, and the next they’re desperately fighting to breathe. “The sea’s only gifts are harsh blows and the occasional chance to feel strong,” a traveller once said.

The statement hits home on the coast. Year after year people visit from all over the country and year after year there are drownings. The past few months have been particularly worrying with drownings taking place regularly since before last year’s festive season began. Is it because people from inland seldom swim in the sea and they are unable to deal with its unpredictability? Many of the recent drownings have in fact been locals. Is it because people are simply not able to handle themselves in the water? Why on Earth, then, are they swimming at all? What role have lifeguards played in the drownings?

How and where a drowning takes place is irrelevant, though. The reality is that all drownings involve a person or people losing their lives to something that is surely avoidable. The Mbili family drowning in November­ last year saw their three children drown in the St Michael’s lagoon after capsizing a paddle boat. A man looked on as his daughter’s body was recovered from the Uvongo lagoon last month. I waited with him day after day, as rescuers searched for his wife’s body. They never found her. A newly married couple­ in Shelly Beach lost their 18-month-old son when he fell into a drained swimming pool that had accumulated rain water. Each of these cases (and there are many more) are so different, but equally tragic.

Lieutenant Colonel Zandra Wiid from the South African Police Force (SAPF) in Port Shepstone distinguishes between an “ocean drowning” and an “inland drowning” (dams, rivers and lagoons), and cites different reasons why they occur.

“In ocean drownings, the main reason victims fall prey is that they do not adhere to advice and instructions from lifeguards while they are swimming in the demarcated areas,” says Wiid. “They enter the water when the sea is not favourable for swimming, get swept away by rip currents, panic and drown.”

Wiid said that inland drownings usually involve children, but that in the past year 50% of inland drownings on the South Coast have seen adults die. “The main reason is that the victims find themselves in trouble when they are not able to touch the bottom,” Wiid explained. “Because they cannot swim, they are unable to reach dry ground and due to exhaustion, drown.”

This question is raised once more: why would somebody who cannot handle the conditions, swim?

Wiid acknowledges that the ideal response to the string of drownings on the South Coast would be to ensure that all school pupils receive basic­ swimming training at school.

“Educating schools on the dangers of drowning is essential and it would be excellent if bodies such as the lifeguards and the National Sea Rescue Institute looked into initiating ocean-skills programmes at our schools,” says Wiid.

Leon Garbade, operations director at Tower 13 Lifeguards, agrees that an education drive is “never a bad idea”, but adds that it is up to parents to exercise responsibility when swimming.

“There are rules and regulations that are often ignored, and this has contributed to a lot of the drownings we have seen,” Garbade says. “Swimming outside of patrol times and in unpatrolled areas­ is a major contributing factor.”

In many of the drownings family members of the deceased have pointed fingers at the authorities (lifeguards, police). Do these families have a right to lay the blame on others if the facts reveal that those who drowned were not following existing rules and regulations?

These rules are put in place for the protection of the swimmer and if they are not followed then surely there can be nobody to blame but the person who made the decision to disobey them. It is a difficult thing and yet it seems so simple in hindsight — follow the rules and you won’t drown and don’t try to swim if you can’t. One can only imagine what these words must mean to the families of those who drowned this festive season­, but they speak to a greater need to help save others from the same fate.

Watching distraught families deal with the pain of losing loved ones on a weekly basis affects everyone — the police, the rescue workers, the medics, the observers, the press as well as our readers. However, there has not been a single response to the tragedies. It is as if it is a part of life on the South Coast. I for one have seen one too many drownings.

• E-mail witness@feveronline.co.za or kzneditor@feveronline.co.za if you have suggestions or comments about the string of drowning incidents.

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