Catherine Greaves, CEO of Life Saving Victoria, reveals her personal near-drowning as tolls rise after COVID-19 lockdown

But with their energy almost exhausted, Greaves realized they were closer to the bank and put his feet on the ground.

“I felt the ground. I felt the sand under my feet. “

“Get up! Get up!” she screamed to her sister. They dragged themselves out of the water, crawled up the beach, and collapsed, huddled together.

“In hindsight, we broke so many rules,” says Greaves. “We haven’t told anyone what we’re up to. We hadn’t checked the terms. We knew about the tides and currents, but we didn’t appreciate the situation.

“We actually felt pretty invincible.”

Greaves says she now finds the story embarrassing, but she tells it publicly for the first time in hopes that it will resonate after another fatal season in the water.

Nine people have drowned in Victoria since early December, four of them over the long New Years weekend, including a seven-year-old boy in the Snowy River at Orbost and a toddler who died in hospital after being in a Melbourne pool.

There have been 27 drownings since July 1, according to Life Saving Victoria, and the death toll matches last year’s dire record, when the state hit a 20-year high of 61.

“I have to say it was a pretty horror start,” says Greaves of this season.

Go into the causes and Greaves expects mishaps and misjudgments to be found. This includes not wearing life jackets while fishing or in boats, misjudging swimming skills, not knowing the conditions, and swimming in areas that are not supervised by lifeguards.

Mornington Peninsula’s chief lifeguard, Sas McNamara, has carried out too many rescues to patrol the beach in her time.Credit:Wayne Taylor

However, Greaves says COVID-19 lockdowns, which have forced more people to vacation at home, have also contributed to the increase in deaths.

Data from the Royal Life Saving Society shows that up to one in four Australians consider themselves weak swimmers or unable to swim – with poor swimming skills a major contributor to summer drowning. Of the foreign-born adults, more than a third classified themselves as weak swimmers in a survey of 1,000 people commissioned by the company.

Last year’s Life Saving Victoria drowning report found that half of all deaths occurred within the person’s own zip code, showing that the risk occurs when it is least expected.


“People who take day trips to beaches or maybe flee to other waterways they don’t know that well, that can mean they don’t swim in patrolled areas, you know, with people who want to get away from other people, I think that is part of it too, ”says Greaves.

There have also been dramatic drops in swimming lessons, which has affected swimming skills, as well as a shortage of swimming instructors and lifeguards.

Like the hospitality industry, the workforce has suffered because swimming pools have been closed. The YMCA, for example, said it employs mostly young people as instructors and lifeguards, and a large portion of that cohort left the industry in search of more stable, ongoing jobs.

The Omicron variant also puts further strain on personnel.

The long-running swim between Lorne Pier and Pub was canceled this week, in part due to the number of volunteers available, while Melbourne’s Collingwood Leisure Center has been temporarily closed due to staff shortages.

“It’s the perfect storm of circumstances,” says Greaves.

Out at the Noble Park water center in southeast town, YMCA area manager Scott Bryant and center manager Michael Zeman juggle another day to fill in gaps in the rosters.

Noble Park Aquatic Center Manager Michael Zeman and Area Manager Scott Bryant.

Noble Park Aquatic Center Manager Michael Zeman and Area Manager Scott Bryant.Credit:Tammy Mills

Zeman says the center lost half of its lifeguards during the pandemic, while Bryant adds that the number of isolated workers in some locations has almost doubled from 40 to 80 every day.

“It’s getting harder and harder to fill the facilities,” says Bryant.


“The safety of our employees and our guests is our top priority … managing the logistics, yes, it was a challenge.”

In the longer term, says Bryant, the YMCA has tried to attract more lifeguards and instructors through referrals to friends and family while promoting it through schools, universities and local media.

With salary rates typically starting at $ 28 an hour for a casual midweek teacher, the YMCA and Life Saving Victoria also target different demographics, such as: B. retirees or re-entrants who cannot work full-time.

Although there was a burden on staff, parents have to book the children for classes, Bryant says, even if there is a waiting list.

“There is very little trust in our children when it comes to a hot summer. The main message for families is to make this a priority, ”he said.

Sas McNamara on Portsea Back Beach earlier this week.

Sas McNamara on Portsea Back Beach earlier this week.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Zeman says the regression was felt. During a school swimming carnival that his center held before Christmas, lifeguards had to carry out 15 rescue operations.

Life Saving Victoria rescued more people this year, with 225 rescues in the past six months, 24 percent more than the same period last year. Only 37 of these rescues were among the flags.

On a welcome cloudy and quieter day on the back beach at Portsea, Mornington Peninsula’s 24-year-old lifeguard Sas McNamara can’t give a number of the rescues she’s carried out. There are just too many.

The mass rescue of up to eight children, some of whom were younger, some of whom were under 10 years old, and who were swept out to sea when the sandbank they were standing on suddenly collapsed, is remembered.

The group swam among the flags, but their parents were nowhere around, she said.

“It’s a big deal to have constant and active supervision of children around the water. It’s so imperative. If you can’t see your child, it is a child in danger, ”says McNamara.

“Swim in a controlled place and stay between the flags. If we can’t see you, we can’t help you. “

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