“People frequently find themselves in trouble 500 metres away from a flagged area.”
At the beginning of summer, Life Saving Victoria warned of a “perfect storm” for drownings. For much of 2020, many Victorians were not able to swim but were desperate to hit the water after months of lockdown.
Despite a major awareness campaign and expansion of lifeguard services at popular beaches, 42 people have drowned in Victoria since July last year.
Paid weekday patrols began four weeks earlier than normal and will run three weeks longer at the 18 busiest sites.
The quick succession of serious incidents is emblematic of the challenge lifeguards have faced in Victoria, where the number of drownings for the past six months is the highest on record.
The number of rescues are also substantially higher than last year when bushfires deterred many people from going to the beach.
Life Saving Victoria conducted 359 rescues from the start of November 2019 until the end of January 2020. But that number had already risen to 476 from November last year to January 25.
In the previous financial year Life Saving Victoria had one helicopter, which was sent to 22 incidents, only one of which required a winch. Now the service has two helicopters that have been called to 68 incidents, including 15 winch incidents, so far in 2020-21.
Mr Treloar describes a drowning as a sequence of events with many possible points of intervention.
“Sometimes the rescue is the break in the chain,” he says. “You can break the link earlier with education or awareness or [by people] making the decision, there’s a massive southerly blowing so I’m not going to go out in my tinnie today.”
Surf Coast chief lifeguard Grace Lightfoot says her crews have performed 13,282 “preventative actions” to avoid rescues and injury this summer. They range from putting up red and yellow flags to asking surfers to stay outside of patrolled swimming areas.
“We’ve just been so busy,” she says.
Ms Lightfoot, a university student, is responsible for about 80 lifeguards who patrol 10 beaches from Torquay to Apollo Bay.
She jokes her “office” is an observation tower perched beside the Jan Juc Surf Life Saving Club with sweeping views of the ocean.
Ms Lightfoot, the 2019 Australian lifeguard of the year, says her crews have performed 30 rescues this summer. In the Surf Coast region there has been one death at Anglesea at an unpatrolled beach where a man’s boat capsized.
Although she lives in Melbourne, Ms Lightfoot grew up holidaying at Jan Juc where she joined the Nippers program aged 10.
She works for Life Saving Victoria in both a paid and voluntary capacity.
Many people put in countless volunteer hours, Ms Lightfoot says. This massive group effort ranges from patrolling and monitoring beaches to working behind the surf club bar or rattling tins for donations on highways.
“There’s such a big social aspect as well,” she says. “Everybody is able to find their niche.”
Many lifeguards are paid during the summer for their work from Monday to Friday but they continue to patrol beaches voluntarily as well.
Life Saving Victoria is kept afloat by its 38,000 volunteers, some of whom hold high-ranking positions within the organisation.
Many of those members have gained specialised skills that are crucial to carrying out complicated rescues.
Rescue watercraft lifeguard Jameson Trainor considers his work a “seasonal career” from Boxing Day to Australia Day, but still continues performing voluntary patrols outside those dates.
He patrols beaches with a jet ski from Williamstown to Phillip Island and the Surf Coast.
“It’s pretty amazing being able to help others in desperate times,” he says.
Mr Trainor is in his final year of studying medicine at Melbourne University and plans to become a doctor.
But he wants to continue his work as both a paid and voluntary lifeguard. He says even mundane rescues can be life-changing moments for the people plucked from the water.
“For us, it’s just what we’re trained to do. For them it’s the scariest day of their life.”
Despite his seniority, lifesaving services director Kane Treloar is also involved in a mostly voluntary capacity.
During the year Mr Treloar is a police detective based in Melbourne’s western suburbs but he spends much of his summer with Life Saving Victoria, including his role as a winch operator for the helicopters.
He says a shared belief in Life Saving Victoria’s mission to preserve human life is the motivation that keeps its members committed and putting in so many hours.
“Surf life saving is the biggest humanitarian organisation of its kind in Australia,” he says.
And its lifeguards are often the only thing standing between swimmers and tragedy.
“Every life lost in the water is an empty seat at the table at Christmas, at a wedding.”
But he warns there may still be more heartbreak to come for Victoria. Summer is far from done and dangerous beaches continue to lure people who are ill-prepared to cope with the force of the waves and rips.
“It’s ongoing. It’s not over by a long way.”
VICTORIA DROWNINGS 2021
- January 26: A 35-year-old man from St Kilda drowned after coming into difficulty while swimming near the northern Victorian town of Cobram, at the border with NSW. His body was found about four metres underwater by divers.
- January 23: Man dies after he was pulled from the water on Thirteenth beach in Barwon Heads. Boy and girl were assisted back to shore while the man was winched from the water by the helicopter.
- January 23: The body of a 58-year-old man was found in the water off the coast of Anglesea. He had been out in a small boat with another man when the vessel overturned.
- January 20: Terry Chandler, 42, died after he was thrown from a tinnie near Darriman, in Victoria’s east. The woman and teen he was with were able to make it to shore. Mr Chandler was found by the police air wing in waters off McLoughlins Beach, about 60 kilometres from Traralgon.
- January 16: Four-year-old girl from Doveton dies after she was pulled unconscious from Lysterfield Lake, near Narre Warren, on January 13. She was taken to hospital in a critical condition but died several days later.
- January 13: Lisa Mandeltort, a teacher at Nossal High School in Berwick, died helping to rescue a 14-year-old girl at Venus Bay on the South Gippsland Coast. She helped the teen and another man back to shore but ended up in distress and was pulled from the water.
- January 13: A 45-year-old postal worker, Aida Hamed, died after being swept off rocks by a wave at Bushrangers Bay on the Mornington Peninsula. Two men jumped into the water to rescue Ms Hamed, her friend and two teenage girls after they were swept into the sea.
- January 13: A man in his 80s, who has not been identified publicly, was pulled unconscious from Rye front beach and was unable to be saved.
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Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.