Study Finds Surfers Save Hundreds Of People From Drowning
For lifelong Inverloch surfer Max Wells, rescuing people from the water is a common occurrence, and a new study has proven that he's not alone.
Mr Wells has been surfing for forty years and had participated in rescues on "many occasions". He said he believed every long-term surfer would have either participated in or assisted in a rescue at some point.
"It's because the surfers are there at the beaches, at dawn, and they're still there at dusk and they come and go all day and they're there on thousands of kilometres of beach that aren’t patrolled by the lifesavers," he said.
The stand-up paddle board school owner recalled one experience in particular, when he rescued a family of four who had been pulled out into the ocean by a rip. Mr Wells was with his family watching the surf when he saw the mother and her three children get swept away.
"[My brother-in-law and I] just picked up our surfboards and we went straight out, we picked them up," he said. "The kids, they didn't even know how much danger they were in, but the mother was quite distraught.
"We just put them on our surfboards and paddled them across the the next sandbar and brought them back in."
Surfers key in prevention
According to a study by La Trobe University, hundreds of people in Victoria are saved from drowning each year by surfers. A team of researchers surveyed 550 surfers across the state over two years, in partnership with Surfing Victoria, and found surfers rescued more than 250 people from the water and administered first aid to more than 100 people.
La Trobe's Centre for Sport and Social Impact research fellow Kiera Staley said the results of the study had solidified what many people had already known.
"There have been stories for many years about surfers undertaking various rescues and providing advice and administering first aid at beaches and there was no evidence as to how often this actually occurs anywhere around the world," she said.
Sport Australia has estimated there are about 80,000 surfers in Victoria. Ms Staley said they had good knowledge of the water and its currents, and were well-equipped to rescue people.
"They have very good water knowledge and they literally have a life-saving device attached to them that is usually six feet long, so you can comfortably fit at least another person on that board in that instance," she said.
The research revealed surfers helped to prevent drownings by giving safety advice 2,500 times, which was particularly valuable at unpatrolled beaches.
"Often [in the car park], that's usually the place where surfers actually tend to capture [visitors] because people often aren't aware of the coastal location unless they are local," Ms Staley said.
Fifty-three people have died from drowning this summer in Australia, with nine of those deaths occurring in Victorian waters and more than half of them happening in coastal waterways.
Ms Staley said the high number of fatalities was likely because of people's inexperience around water during the pandemic. "People haven't necessarily had access to the swimming lessons that they [ordinarily] would have," she said.
"In the past three years we've also seen that a lot of inland holiday locations have been impacted by flooding, which means people are actually tending to move towards coastal areas, or maybe holiday in locations where they're unfamiliar with it and water bodies."
Surfing Victoria's marketing and communications manager Liam Robertson said surfers played a huge role in filling the gap when lifesavers were not present. "Lifesavers do an incredible job but unfortunately, they can't be there all day every day ... so surfers are able to fill those gaps and help create safer beaches all year round," he said.
Mr Robertson said the new research was very valuable in understanding more details about the rescues occurring and hoped it would convince more surfers to partake in the Surfers Rescue 24/7 program, teaching life saving skills to surfers.
According to the La Trobe University study, more than 3,500 surfers have participated in the program since its inception four years ago.
"It teaches surfers how to perform board rescues and CPR safely so that we don't have more fatalities, and it helps in creating safer beaches and safer communities," Mr Robertson said.
// NATASHA SCHAPOVA
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