WATER saftey crisis
Each Sunday during summer, up to 700 children congregate on the shores of Balmoral Beach to learn the basics of water safety and water confidence through the Nippers program.
An initiative of Surf Life Saving Australia, Balmoral Beach Club has been running the program successfully for 20 years thanks to dedicated parents, sponsors and lifesavers.
According to police, paramedics and water safety experts, December to February 2016/17 was a "horror summer".
And the summer season the year prior could be labelled as horrific too. In July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, there were more than 20 drownings in NSW alone - in backyard pools, surf beaches, waterways and rivers. On a larger scale, there were 280 drownings across Australia - 83 per cent being male casualties, and 17 per cent females. This figure of 280 drowning deaths is an increase of 13 drowning deaths in the 2014/15 period. The main location for the drownings were at beaches (58 per cent), ocean/harbour locations (53 per cent) and swimming pools (45 per cent).
Surf Life Saving Australia representatives say it's a tragic situation, compounded by the fact not enough younger children are learning to swim and parents and guardians failing to closely monitor their children at home and at the beach.
Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) CEO Justin Scarr warns parents they cannot stop watching their young children "for one minute" in water. "Each drowning death is a personal story - impacting on rescuers and communities," he says.
"The RLSS is committed to reducing the number of drowning deaths in Australia and will work to help achieve this goal.
Although rivers, inland waterways and beaches can seem calm -there are rips and submerged obstacles that are not visible from the bank and water conditions can change quickly."
It's a message that is not lost on the Nippers parents and instructors - especially coordinator Charles Davey. He says when he first arrived in Australia from the UK he had a water safety "incident" that made him even more determined to ensure his own children had good water survival skills.
"In this country, it is critical children and parents feel confident in the water," Mr Davey tells North Shore Living. "We have hundreds of children registered in Nippers at Balmoral between the ages of four and 12 years. The program breaks down groups into age and gender to allow maximum support from parents and volunteers.
"Some children are competent in a pool but not in the ocean, where waves and currents take them in a different direction. We give them advice about rips and safety and also educate parents who act as our volunteers in and out of the water."
North Shore lifesaver Hamish Fitzsimons is a Nippers instructor and his four children have been through the Balmoral Nippers program. "I wanted my children to be confident in the water because I understand just how important it is," he says.
"Nippers is the first step in learning water confidence and an introduction to surf-based instruction. I think parents are also learning these skills..
"There are so many tips to keeping yourself safe and, as they get older, helping to rescue others."
Water authorities met recently to reinforce the safety messages and to plead with the public to be more vigilant around waterways and beaches.
Surf Life Saving NSW acting CEO Adam Weir says with the warm weather continuing, people need to take the issue seriously.
"It is extremely important parents of young children and carers stay alert and cautious around backyard pools. It is also vital supervision takes place, pool fences and gates are maintained, and parents enrol their children into water awareness lessons and learn resuscitation," he urges.
Mr Weir says beachgoers should always swim between the patrol flags and swim with parents or a friend for additional safety.
The local Nippers program enables children to learn water safety skills for approximately $120 a year, and in many cases can be more affordable than private lessons in other locations.
"We are a not-for-profit organisation so obviously our aim is not to make money," Mr Davey says.
"The kids get free rash vests, caps and trunks and we upgrade all the equipment and boats with the help of our sponsors.
"It's all about survival made fun”.