The Lifesaving Initiative Transforming New Zealand’s CoastlineSunday, 3 December 2023
For many New Zealanders the beach is one of their favourite playgrounds. However, as families discover every year, this playground can be deadly.
In 2018, 23 people fatally drowned on the coastline, and one of them was Wairongoa (Magoo) Renata. Leigh Albert, his partner, fondly remembers, “Magoo was the kind of person who would do anything for anyone in need. He would help whānau, neighbours, and complete strangers at the drop of a hat.”
On 2 January 2018 he made the ultimate sacrifice.
“I’ve seen photos someone took on that day, and it was a beautiful day; the water didn’t look dangerous at all, but all of a sudden, it turned.”
While swimming at Cable Bay Reserve in Northland, their three children got caught in a rip current. Magoo went in to rescue them, but while the children were rescued by other beachgoers using boogie boards and a paddle board, Magoo tragically drowned.
“In the morning, everything was fine, but by the afternoon, everything had changed. That one incident changed my life,” Leigh reflects. “The mental health effects on my children and my niece and nephew who were also present that day have been huge.”
Pat Millar, a Northland resident, heard reports on the news about someone’s death at Cable Bay Reserve and soon realised it was someone she knew.
“It was very distressing, and it weighed heavily on my mind. In all the news articles that followed, they said if you go into the water to help someone, take a flotation device, even if it’s an empty drink bottle. So, I wondered, if that’s the case why aren’t there flotation devices on all of our beaches?”
Every year bystanders undertake numerous in-water rescues across New Zealand; however, data retrieved from the Water Safety New Zealand DrownBase shows that between 2012 and 2022, 100% of people who died while attempting a bystander rescue, did not carry any form of personal flotation device.
Not one to sit idly by, Pat took action. She initially hung a large fishing float on a tree with the words ‘For Emergency’ on it. While she waited for a more suitable device to arrive, which she’d ordered online, she reached out to friends for contributions and was surprised at the incredible generosity.
“I asked friends if they would like to contribute to the $212 cost of the flotation tube. We had a little meeting with people we knew around town and within a few days more than $800 had been received along with lots of encouragement for the idea.”
The Far North District Council soon got onboard, a charitable trust was established, and more funds were raised. Soon, Operation Flotation was born.
“Swimming, collecting kai moana, and fishing are a big part of our lifestyle in the Far North,” said Moko Tepania, Far North District Mayor. “We also know that conditions change very quickly, and this can lead to tragedy. Pat’s idea to provide accessible, easy-to-use flotation devices at our beaches was a simple one that has had a huge and positive impact on those facing life and death situations. Her work is truly inspirational.”
During this time, Pat kept in touch with Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ), and one day everything changed.
In 2021, thanks to funding from New Zealand Search and Rescue, SLSNZ started a project to create standards for public rescue equipment (PRE) and invited Operation Flotation to collaborate.
Dr Mick Kearney, SLSNZ National Coastal Safety Manager, said, “PRE is a crucial tool in decreasing the number of drownings along New Zealand’s coast and in our inland waterways. The work undertaken by Pat was integral, and we wanted to support her mission as we recognised the substantial benefits, particularly in enhancing safety along some of our more hazardous coastlines.”
Historically, Hawke’s Bay has one of the highest drowning rates in the country with Marine Parade being the region’s most dangerous beach.
Kristen Wise, Napier Mayor, said, “Marine Parade Beach has a steep gradient and strong undertow. When waves reach over two metres, they become very dangerous and if people are not aware of this and are playing near the water’s edge, it can be easy to get swept offshore. Marine Parade Beach is also very close to the CBD and on a calm, hot summer’s day it can be extremely inviting.”
In 2021, a five-year old boy drowned at the southern end of Marine Parade Beach, near the National Aquarium of New Zealand. The tragic incident triggered Napier City Council to commission SLSNZ to undertake a Coastal Risk Assessment of the Napier area.
Dr Kearney said, “When it comes to coastal management, SLSNZ believes in making decisions based on evidence based, ongoing risk assessments. By doing a Coastal Risk Assessment for Napier City Council we were able to figure out what safety precautions were appropriate for the coastline and water.”
Mayor Wise, said, “The risk assessment provided us with detailed information about our local beach environment. Most importantly, the data confirmed the increased number of people using Ahuriri beaches for recreation and the need for surf lifeguards to patrol at Hardinge Road Beach. Pacific SLSC then shifted their primary patrols to Hardinge Road Beach in the summer of 2022/2023. The assessment also indicated no evidence to support the need for surf lifeguards to patrol Marine Parade Beach.”
Instead, bright pink buoys, provided by the National Sea Rescue Institute in South Africa who had implemented their own successful PRE programme, were placed along Marine Parade Beach. These were supported by a local campaign and new signs to raise awareness about the dangers of Marine Parade Beach and information about the buoys.
Mayor Wise said the buoys have already been put to good use, “We had a successful bystander rescue using the PRE in June. Police used the flotation device to assist a young woman swept out to sea, until Coastguard Hawke’s Bay was able to complete the rescue. This confirms the benefit of having PRE available”.
Following this project, SLSNZ created ‘A Guide to Public Rescue Equipment for the New Zealand Coast’.
Developed by Dr Kearney, and Dr Teresa Stanley from Drowning Prevention Aotearoa, the guide sets a standard for the design and associated signage for PRE following the completion of a Coastal Risk Assessment. It also provides land managers with sufficient information to enable them to set up effective and consistent PRE systems on their coastline.
Dr Kearney said, “This is the first time a document like this has been produced in New Zealand. The benefits of standardising the design and content of PRE are immeasurable, but one thing is certain, our coast will become safer as more land managers adopt these measures. We are, therefore, strongly urging all land managers to read and use this guide to help make our coast a safer place to visit.”
Thanks to funding from ACC, the PRE will now be made here in New Zealand and placed on every Surf Life Saving club around the country. So, if someone needs help outside of regular hours and runs to the club looking for help, they will be able to use the PRE.
And Leigh wholeheartedly thinks it will make a difference, “It’ll change our culture. By having that signage and PRE there, it’ll make people pause and think about the conditions, and if they do get into trouble, it’ll be there waiting for them”.
On the very first page of ‘A Guide to Public Rescue Equipment for the New Zealand Coast’, there is a dedication to Magoo.
“None of this would have happened without him,” Pat reflects. “I think he gave me a little tap on the shoulder when he left and said, ‘here’s a little job for you’”.
Leigh knows Magoo would be proud to have been the catalyst for this change.
“His head would be the size of Mars!” she laughs, before adding, “He would be absolutely stoked. He would be proud and chuffed.
“A big thanks to Pat, who has taken this and just driven it through. She’s heroic. The other organisations supporting her, like SLSNZ, have also been fantastic in taking this initiative onboard.”
The aim is to have PRE stretching right along New Zealand’s coastline, so no other lives are lost, and no other community has to go through what Leigh and her family did.
“It’s heart-warming to hear about the project and how it’s helping people. But it’s bittersweet to be fair… ‘If only’ always comes to mind. ‘If only’ we had PRE when my kids were drowning, ‘if only’ my partner had PRE when he was drowning. Every summer people drown in New Zealand; more needs to be done in this area, and I believe that PRE is the ‘more’ we so desperately need.”
To view ‘A Guide to Public Rescue Equipment for the New Zealand Coast’, click here