The Un-Explored Potential Role of Surfers in Reducing Drowning on New Zealand Beaches

Mead, Jamie
Le de, Loic
Moylan, Melanie
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Master of Disaster Risk Management and Development
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Auckland University of Technology

Drowning is the third leading cause of injury-related death globally. The financial and social burden of drowning on society has become so significant that, in 2021, the United Nations General Assembly, backed by over 80 countries worldwide, adopted a resolution on drowning prevention for the first time in the organisation’s 75-year history. Beaches and coastal environments are prominent locations for drowning, however research examining the causes and processes of drowning at beaches has been neglected, leading drowning to become an invisible disaster globally. A handful of studies conducted in Australia and Europe suggest surfers (as bystanders) might play a critical role in rescuing people from drowning and thus acknowledge surfers’ rescue capabilities. However, research about the role of surfers in rescuing people from drowning remains scarce and no data has been gathered in New Zealand, leaving a knowledge gap surrounding rescues being conducted by surfers. Water safety organisations seek to broaden prevention strategies, as New Zealand’s 10-year average coastal fatal drowning rate per capita is now 44% higher than Australia and rates of fatal coastal drowning continue to rise. This research aimed to provide original scientific data to quantify surfer rescues and identify the trends and characteristics associated with these. A quantitative, cross-sectional study was conducted, involving a questionnaire-based survey that was disseminated through the Surf Life Saving New Zealand and Surfing New Zealand social media networks. A total of 418 surfers took part in the survey. The survey provided data on rescuer and victim demographics, the respondent’s rescues over their lifetime and their most recent rescue on New Zealand beaches. The results indicate that an average of 48 lives are saved annually by this group of surfers, with a total of 1,274 rescues conducted. The potential impact surfers can make in reducing coastal drowning is evident by the volume of rescues performed by this group. The sample population was only 0.28% of the estimated 145,000 surfers in New Zealand. If only 1% of New Zealand’s surfers were currently conducting one lifesaving rescue per year, the prevention of the economic and social outcomes of drowning on New Zealand beaches would be immeasurable. Prominent male representation amongst rescuers was evident, however, no significant difference was witnessed between gender, regarding rescue frequency or confidence. There was no association found between having undergone rescue training and an increased frequency of rescues. Conversely, associations were found between increased years of surfing experience and frequency of rescue, as well as participating in formal rescue training. Rip currents clearly emerged as the leading hazard associated with rescue and were often coupled with poor swimming skills and lack of hazard awareness. Rescues were most frequently performed outside of patrolled areas and times and there were clear associations between where surfers conduct most of their rescues and their home break. Results from this study identified an experienced population of surfers that possess knowledge and ability, contrary to that of the statistical primary drowning victim or bystander rescuer. This study is pioneering work in New Zealand and calls for more attention towards the important role surfers play in coastal drowning prevention. Their role has long been unrecognized and/or invisible. This research begins to fill an important gap as it highlights surfer’s role in drowning prevention, by providing a quantification of the rescues they performed on New Zealand beaches. This work has strong implications for disaster risk reduction policies and practice, including developing drowning prevention and water safety strategies that cater for surfers' skills, knowledge and resources. It calls for a shift of approach in drowning prevention toward building upon local capacities, where historically drowning prevention focused exclusively on lifeguards in patrol areas.

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