Northland had the third-highest drowning rate in the country last year. Photo / Michael Cunningham
A former competitive swimmer from Northland is determined to change the region’s high drowning rate by ensuring swimming lessons are available locally for adults and kids alike.
Maungaturoto resident Ellen Quirke, who competed in the
2014 Commonwealth Games, has launched multiple initiatives to get people involved in swimming since moving to Kaipara a year and a half ago.
“Swimming had always been my whole life and when we moved here, my (at the time) 10-year-old stepdaughter questioned where she was going to swim.”
Quirke (who uses the pronouns they/them) quickly realized there were not a lot of options close by.
They decided to give swimming lessons in their spare time, to ensure local children and adults would be safe in the water.
When Quirke advertised on social media, they discovered how many people were in need of lessons.
“The response was just overwhelming from the get-go. We had close to 60 kids enrolled in lessons and that was just me [teaching] on my own.”
Luckily, there were still pools at Maungaturoto Primary and Otamatea High Schools, and Quirke was able to hold lessons at the high school.
“They’ve got really good pools. They’ve been maintained by the schools and they’ve really made an effort to keep them open and available for school use.”
“It is quite expensive and a lot of other schools have had to close their school pools for that reason.”
The lessons evolved into a swim school, Otamatea Aquatics, which now has an additional four teachers. They currently have more than 100 people, children and adults, taking swimming lessons.
Another initiative Quirke started this year is the Swim Kaipara Trust which aims to improve access to swimming facilities and services throughout the district.
They hoped it would be possible to eventually have heated pool facilities in Maungatoroto to allow year-round swimming.
Quirke has also helped restart the Maungaturoto Swimming Club to get children into competitions and swim racing, which will be relaunched with an event on December 2.
Otamatea Aquatics charged as little as possible for lessons – currently $16 – to break down barriers to learning to swim.
“The more people we can get into the pool and learn to swim, that’s my priority,” Quirke said
There were drownings last year where children got into trouble in the water and parents trying to rescue them got into trouble themselves, Quirke said, so swimming lessons were also important for adults.
“I think the most common scenario statistically is, middle-aged men who may have been confident in the water as teenagers or young adults put themselves into situations where they’re like, ‘I’ll be sweet, I’m a good swimmer ‘, and very quickly realize that actually, they’re very much out of their depth.”
So far this year, 14 people have drowned in Northland. In 2021, 10 people drowned in the region, the third-highest drowning rate per capita in the country.
Around the country, 74 people have died from drowning this year compared to 66 in 2021.
This week is SWIMSAFER week, run by SWIM Coaches and Teachers New Zealand, which aims to provide more children with water safety skills and break down cost barriers to swimming lessons.
Water safety tips:
- Choose a lifeguarded beach and swim between the red and yellow flags.
- Watch out for rip currents.
- If caught in a rip, remember the 3Rs: Relax and float, Raise your hand and Ride the rip.
- Read and understand the safety signs.
- Ask a surf lifeguard for advice as beach conditions can change regularly.
- Know your limits.
- Always keep a very close eye on young children in or near the water.
- Keep children within arm’s reach at all times.
- Get a friend to swim, surf or fish with you.
- When rock fishing, always wear a lifejacket and shoes with grip.
- If in doubt, stay out!
- If you see someone in trouble in the water, call 111.