Even when we try to unplug over the summer, stories of devastating tragedy sneak through our filter. It’s been impossible to avoid the news of children and adults in peril in water across Australia this Christmas.
As parents, a day at the beach is our great love and fear.
Our children love the ocean and so do we as it keeps them happily entertained for hours. However keeping our kids safe on the beach requires constant vigilance.
Queenslanders know the surf is no joke. Every time a person drowns in our country it devastates a family forever and creates one lifetime of regret about what could have been.
Water safety has always been very important in our family.
My grandfather Norman Strachan was captain of the Austinmer Surf Club and one day back in 1917 he saved a drowning child’s life. It changed the course of his life.
My Dad is still passionate about water safety decades after his tiny goddaughter drowned in her family’s swimming pool. Dad was determined from then on to work with paediatricians and powerful advocates like Laurie Lawrence and other parents to introduce pool fencing laws. It was an epic battle to get the legislation passed. Real people power in action. We went with our parents to meetings and rallies and we watched as they politely agitated for change.
I now realise the most enduring imprint my parents left on me – the personal is political and the political is personal.
Water is a part of how we live in Queensland. As Queenslanders we have to understand the waterways, the surf, the pools, the rivers, the dams. My memories of childhood holidays spent on Dicky Beach loom like a giant movie in my mind. We would swim for hours, clamber across the rock pools and eat toasted sandwiches. No devices, small black and white telly, sand in the bed at night and so exhausted we would sleep like logs.
The Sunshine Coast in the 1970s was iconic Australia. The sand was so hot you bolted across it and sunscreen was new. My mum and dad had five little kids. I picture them wrangling the old foam surfboards, towels, hats, buckets and umbrellas for all five of us with enormous sympathy. It was heaven for us and anxiety from hell for them – and that’s not even when we were out in the water.
Growing up we were lucky to have years of swimming lessons in Brisbane which stood us all in great stead. We would swim all year round with our friends, sometimes 12 in a pool until our lips were blue and teeth chattering – reluctantly climbing out after a long day. We became confident around water and had parents watching closely in shifts.
Of course the lifesavers were ever present when we were on the beach too. Today when we take our kids to the beach they are accustomed to thanking the lifesavers at the end of the day. Bill and I have made learning to swim a high priority for our kids and our youngest has just started nippers. It brings us joy to see her learning these skills. Her Queensland cousins have been Kings Beach nippers for many years.
We believe that every child deserves the opportunity to learn how to swim properly because too many young people are growing up without acquiring sufficient water safety skills.
Last year almost 250 people drowned in Australian waterways. One in five drownings were people under the age of 25. This summer has been particularly tragic with 65 drownings in our waterways. Our hearts break for their families. We want to make sure Australian children are strong swimmers and safe in the water.
Sadly, Australia has not yet got a national approach to swimming and water safety education. In many cases, the level of water safety education a child gets is dependent on where they live or their parents’ income. The cost of swimming lessons can be prohibitive. This in unfair and it is unsafe. We don’t want children to miss out.
I come from a family of swimmers. I had the opportunity to be in the life-saving team at school. I know I was really lucky to have these opportunities. I am over the moon Bill and his colleagues are going to announce a really substantial answer to this problem that has resulted in so many senseless deaths.
Currently, about one in five kids leave primary school unable to swim 50 metres. We must change that. We want Australian kids to know how to swim 50 metres, tread water and how to respond if they fall into water unexpectedly.
As parents nothing matters more to us than the safety of our kids. Supervision must be constant, however we want our kids to have vital swim skills, a gift that lasts a lifetime.
Originally published in the Courier Mail.