‘It’s a matter of life or death’
Parents, aquatics experts believe swimming lessons, water safety education should be mandatory in schools
It was a nice summer day for a dip on a sunny summer afternoon earlier this month when 14-year-old Bobby Lush and his two younger friends and younger cousin took a trip to the beach.
With adult relatives watching from the shore at Small Point, near Western Bay, the children were up to their waists, having a good time, frolicking in the ocean.
Suddenly, they were out of sight.
“Just like that, they were gone,” Bobby’s father, Robert Hawco told The Telegram Tuesday.
He said a rogue wave came out of nowhere and sucked all four children out into the ocean, where they were in over their heads.
“It happened just like that,” Hawco said.
One of the younger children ended up clinging to a rock sticking up further out in the ocean. Bobby, a strong swimmer, managed to pull himself to the surface and tread water, but when he saw the other two swimmers in trouble, he grabbed both and pulled them to the rocks. “All the younger kids were crying,” Hawco said.
Hawco wasn’t there, but got the call from his son soon afterwards telling him about the frightening ordeal.
“I just thank God they all survived,” he said. “It could’ve went the other way pretty quickly.”
He’s also thankful his son was a strong swimmer.
It’s one of many frightening incidents that happened to children all too often in this province and one of the reasons why parents and water safety advocates are pushing for more education.
Hawco — whose son was in swimming lessons from age six — is one of many parents who believe swimming and lifesaving water training should be mandatory in the school system.
“Especially here, on an island, where we’re surrounded by water and kids swim in the ocean all the time,” Hawco said. “I’m glad Bobby learned about it when he was young because it certainly paid off ( that day)…
“I played sports all my life, but knowing how to swim and what to do in those (dangerous) situations is more important than any of it.
“It’s a matter of life or death.” According to the most recent statistics prepared by the Drowning Prevention Research Centre for the Lifesaving Society of Canada, between 2009 and 2013, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reports there were 110 drowning fatalities in Newfoundland and Labrador — an increased of 14 per cent over the previous five-year period.
Ninety-four per cent of those fatalities occurred in natural bodies of water (68 per cent in the ocean, 15 per cent in a pond or lake and 11 per cent in a river or stream).
The average death rate of 4.2 per 100,000 people in this province continues to be substantially higher than the national average of 1.4 per 100,000.
With the numbers rising, many believe water safety needs to be taken more seriously.
Raegan Wiseman of the Lifesaving Society of Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador branch, said while some schools incorporate Swim to Survive instruction in their curriculum, not all children in the province get the opportunity.
“I do believe having it part of the school curriculum would help tremendously,” said Wiseman, who has been a lifeguard and swimming instructor for almost 10 years.
“Education is the key to prevent water-related incidents. Kids should know exactly what to do so that it becomes second nature to them.”
When The Telegram asked to speak to Education Minister Dale Kirby, the department sent an email stating there are no plans to introduce mandatory swimming lessons in the school curriculum.
It pointed out that not all students throughout the province would have access to indoor swimming facilities. However, it noted that there are schools in the province with access to indoor pools and supervised swimming that offer lessons.
“The K to 12 physical education and health curriculum does teach and promote safety during physical activities and is flexible so that if a school wanted to teach swimming they certainly could,” the department said.
In addition, water safety is also a part of the health program, which teaches students personal safety with respect to boating and other water activities, including the proper use of personal flotation devices.
But many people in this province believe lessons and handson water survival instruction should be compulsory.
Some other provinces make it a priority.
Ontario’s provincial government provides the Lifesaving Society with $1.5 million a year to give Grade 3 students lessons in basic water survival. Some are now pushing the government to make swimming lessons available for all students in that province.
Other parts of the world also make it a major part of the education system.
According to the Aquamobile website in England, all schools must provide swimming instruction to children before they finish their primary education. They are required to be taught to swim confidently over a distance of at least 25 metres.
In Juneau, Alaska, the government has made swimming a large part of the curriculum, due to their proximity to the coast. They have ensured that every student before the age of 10 can swim confidently and independently, through their Learn to Swim Program.
“The government in Alaska is even subsidizing the cost of the use of the pool and the lessons, because they are aware of how important this life skill is,” the website states.
Susan Quigley, aquatics supervisor at The Summit recreation facility in Mount Pearl, said it’s not just about learning to swim, but about learning how to be water smart — learning how to tread water, how to help yourself when in trouble and not to panic.
“I truly believe it’s a life skill. It’s one of those things that (is more) important than learning to ride a bike or any other recreational activities because the consequences are so great,” Quigley said.
“And it should be taught early in life because like anything, it’s harder to learn the older you get.”
Quigley said children also need to be taught how to recognize dangerous water hazards and know what swimming spots are dangerous and when.
“So many drowning deaths are preventable,” she said. “Our youth need to have a better education and understanding about these dangers.
“And parents shouldn’t leave it up to the school system. They need to take a proactive role, too.”
Amanda Dawe-organ was adamant that her daughter would have swimming lessons.
“I wanted her to become comfortable in and around water, and learn water safety rules,” said Dawe-organ, whose daughter began lessons at age three.
She had asked her daughter’s teacher about lessons in school, but was told there were not enough teachers to make it work.
“It’s a shame, really. It should be part of the physical education program of the schools,” she said.
“Every child should know how to swim. It’s a vital life skill. … I know accidents can still happen, but with accidental drownings still occurring at high or higher rates, giving our child the opportunity and abilities to learn to swim is giving her a necessary skill — not only to help herself if something ever happened, but to possibly save someone else as well.”
Bill Cahill of Bauline started taking his grandchildren — Jackson, 6, and Rachel, 3 — to the pool when they were toddlers.
“It’s all about having fun for them and it’s an opportunity for me to spend some quality time with them, but it’s important to get them used to the water when they’re young,” Cahill said while waiting to get into the kiddie pool at the Aquarena recently.
“I can’t swim myself, but it’s an important skill and I wanted them to have that. They’re comfortable in the water and I know they’ll keep progressing as they get older.
“I love the water,” Jackson said with a smile.
Cahill said, in this day and age of busy schedules, not every child is lucky enough to have a parent or grandparent available to take them swimming.
“That why I think swimming lessons should be in the schools too,” he said. “It’s important to have that knowledge of water safety.”
Swimming lessons and water safety instruction certainly paid off for Hawco’s son, Bobby, his friends and cousin.
“That’s for sure,” he said. “If Bobby hadn’t been a strong swimmer, I don’t want to think about what could’ve happened to them.”
Like most kids, Gracie Organ loves the water, which is why her parents, Shawn and Amanda, insisted she get swimming lessons at an early age.