Not surfing, drowning
Earlier this year, Surf Life Saving Australia released the Coastal Safety Brief: Surfing and Watercraft, a document that distills all the SLSA statistics - think number of rescues, fatalities, times, ages etc etc - plus responses to surveys into one data-heavy 20-page booklet.
With a penchant for numbers and facts, blindboy was the right guy to pull the document apart for us. What do all those statistics mean for surfers?
Since 2003, according to available statistics, six surfers have been fatally attacked by sharks in Australia. These deaths, combined with eight others in different coastal activities, caused widespread discussion resulting in policy changes, new technology, and the introduction of a variety of products, some more effective than others, to reduce the risk. Over the same time period 53 surfers drowned, yet this has provoked very little discussion and practically no response.
Human nature being what it is, this doesn't require much explanation. We make our decisions based on emotions and construct 'rational' arguments to support them later. Fatal shark attacks are more newsworthy than drowning deaths and provoke stronger emotional reactions. Add to that our notorious inability to accurately assess risk and our fears, with the energetic responses that accompany them, naturally focus on the shark attacks.
Perhaps none of this would matter much if drowning deaths were as random and unpredictable as shark attacks, but they are not. The data from Surf Life Saving Australia suggests that a significant percentage of drowning deaths could be avoided. It sends a clear message that surfers would do well to think more deeply about the issue and consider making the changes necessary to reduce their risk.
Consider the most startling of the statistics they present. According to their surveys, 20% of surfers self-report as unable to swim in the surf or as weak swimmers, and that figure has been consistent from year to year. There might be a tendency to dismiss this as being a problem related only to beginners but given the numbers it is likely to be more widespread than that.
Less surprising, but equally disturbing, is that 54% of surfers report occasionally surfing under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. The available statistics do not distinguish between surfers and paddlers (surf skis and sea kayaks) but with 19% of drowning deaths being attributable to alcohol or drug use it is a reasonable assumption that surfers accounted for an even share of that number. The historical culture of surfing has a lot to answer for here. From the pot smoking in Morning Of The Earth, to Michael Peterson's reputation for winning events while on LSD and on to the cocaine-fuelled exploits of later generations, significant parts of surfing culture have not merely been tolerant of drugs, they have actively embraced them.
Age is also a factor but the evidence suggests a pattern that might not have been expected. It indicates a decreased risk between the ages of 40 and 54 with younger and older surfers having a significantly higher risk. In the case of older surfers heart disease has been a significant factor in many drowning deaths. It may also have been under-reported as a risk since if a person died directly from a heart attack while surfing, rather than from drowning, it would not have been recorded.
Surfing has a couple of risks in terms of this that do not exist in most other forms of exercise. The first and most important is that the work rate cannot always be controlled. A surfer who has been working close to their maximum during a difficult paddle out may arrive to find the set of the day looming with the additional unavoidable effort that would require. Over-exertion is a known trigger for heart attacks. The second risk is cold which raises blood pressure for a short period. A surfer with an underlying heart condition, who jumps into cold water and immediately makes a major effort is greatly increasing their risk.
Older surfers in particular should be aware of these risks and take steps to minimise them. A regular medical check up, with referral for a cardiac stress test if there are grounds for concern, is a good way to assess that risk. It is also important to keep the work rate low so that there is always a reserve available if needed. This involves paddling out slowly and making sure your heart rate has recovered between waves. It is also worth noting, for those who feel their activity level excludes a need for concern, that competitors in Masters events across a range of sports have a higher incidence of cardio-vascular disease than the general population.
Another concern is that the survey data shows 66% of surfers sometimes surf in conditions beyond their skill level. The observations of many experienced surfers would probably support this. The problem here relates to the decision making process and in some ways is understandable since there is no clear guidance available about how to assess the risk. Surfers are also notoriously reluctant to take guidance when offered, even when it comes from experienced lifeguards.
One aspect of the risk assessment that tends to be over looked is that the risk is not evenly spread and is cumulative from year to year. It is not hard to determine from the data that the overall risk for an individual in any one year is very small but a closer look indicates that “frequent” surfers include those who surf as little as once a month. If, as is fair to assume on Swellnet, you surf much more frequently than that, your share of the risk increases proportionally. Perhaps of more concern is the lifetime risk. Many surfers will participate for fifty years or more so their total risk is the annual risk multiplied by how ever many years they surf. If you do this calculation the figures become much less reassuring!
There are no easy solutions to these issues. Surf Life Saving Australia finds it very difficult to get its message across as most surfers are not members of surf life saving clubs. Surfing Australia are currently offering rescue and resuscitation courses for surfers through local boardriding clubs to run next year but are obviously much more focused on competitive surfing. The issue then falls in between the two groups. Surf Life Saving Australia has the resources and the will to address the issue. Surfing Australia has the specific expertise and contacts within the surfing community to communicate effectively with them. They need to work together in a longer term, more substantial manner to reduce the incidence of drownings.