Spate of drownings leads to renewed call for surf life savers' funding boost

Spate of drownings leads to renewed call for surf life savers' funding boost

By Rayssa Almeida RNZ

As the country's drowning toll mounts rapidly, Auckland beachgoers want more lifeguards on duty - meanwhile, Surf Life Saving says it needs more money to cover more beaches.

From Friday to Sunday, six people died in the water in and around Auckland.

At Piha Beach, one of Auckland's most famous summer spots, two deaths in a weekend did not stop swimmers getting in the water.

Waitākere ward councillor Shane Henderson said there must be education for beachgoers.

"In Piha and along the west coast this is hugely a problem and it's a problem every year that we have this conversation, so we've got to be looking at doing something different."

"Given that we're an island nation surrounded by water, so many of us still don't have those basic swim skills, and so when they get in trouble it can be a really tragic outcome," he said.

Swimmers at Piha Beach today said the shocking number of drownings in the past month could be avoided with a little more funding.

"The lifeguards here do an incredible job. I wish they were funded more than they are, I think they shouldn't be [reliant] just on fundraising, there should be government funding," US tourist Christina Wagner said.

French tourist Mathis Kowlczyk, who has been in New Zealand for six months, said he has been cautious about the beaches.

"You have to know your capacity, you can't take the risk," he said.

Beachgoer Kegan Pullar said people underestimated the water here, particularly on the west coast.

Joy Britten believed swimmers should be more aware.

"If you don't know [how to swim], and you know you can't do it, then you should be swimming in between the flags," Britten said.

Surf Life Saving is a charity and has more than 4000 volunteers at more than 80 locations through summer.

The national association saved more than 700 people from drowning last year.

In 2020, Labour announced a first-time contribution to the costs of surf lifesaving operations - at a level of just under $10 million a year - or around 15 percent of the charity costs.

Surf Life Saving's chief operations officer Chris Emmett said in order to be able to cover more unpatrolled areas, the charity needed more resources.

"We could always do with more funding and we're always working with our funding partners to help increase things across the country and help increase our life saving footprint."

The biggest challenge was making the use of more resources sustainable, he said.

"That's where we need input, we need funding input, we need community input, we need volunteers' input."

Emmett said more Surf Life Saving beach patrols could be the difference between life and death.

"Our need is increasing across the country. People are swimming at more remote, isolated locations around the country, and we need to get in there and start looking at it seriously."

Surf Life Saving's Northern Region chief executive Matt Williams said the charity was seeking up to half a million dollars from council funding to increase patrol hours.

The fund would also be adding paid lifeguards at two new locations in the East Coast north of Auckland - Tawharanui and Te Arai.

Williams said the only way to reduce water incidents was to provide surf lifesaving patrols at more beaches.

"The next step in the conversation is where does Surf Life Saving needs to be in the future so the flags can be in more locations, and we are here for that conversation when the community is ready."