Confronting stats reveal Kiwis most at risk of drowning in world-first study

Just hearing the lapping of the tide brought Paris Schlooz to the brink of a panic attack the first time she visited a beach after almost drowning a year ago.

An impromptu swim with her sister at Muriwai, on Auckland’s notoriously dangerous west coast, on November 8 last year, turned bad pretty quickly.

But the 17-year-old managed to avoid being counted among New Zealand drowning statistics by the grace of off-duty lifeguards relaxing on the beach.

“I have only been to the beach once since then and I didn’t go in the water,” Schlooz said.

“It was a very calm beach, there were very little waves and I really struggled just listening and was like ‘Mum, can we leave’.

“I have been struggling a bit. It’s made me think a lot about life, that I could have died.”

Paris was one of the lucky ones.

Risk-taking on unpatrolled coasts contributed to 219 drownings between 2008 to 2017.

A University of Auckland study released today has looked at the fatality stats to findcommon characteristics.

The most stark finding is that 92 per cent of Kiwis who go missing off our coastline are male.

The most frequent activities of drowning victims were boating (31 per cent), swimming (20 per cent), fishing (18 per cent) and diving/snorkelling (16 per cent).

Study co-author Dr Jonathon Webber said the research originally aimed to determine how long it took to find the bodies of people who went missing in the ocean.

Fifty-eight per cent were found within 24 hours, and 64 per cent within 1km of where they disappeared.

“It also confirms what we already know to be high-risk groups: males, adults boating, young people swimming and Asian, Māori and Pasifika people fishing,” Webber said.

One big surprise was that 47 per cent of drownings were on the North Island’s east coast.

“You might have expected the west coast, which has much more challenging surf conditions, to top the list – but that wasn’t the case,” Webber said.

The study reviewed Water Safety New Zealand statistics and found the median age of drowning victims was 41.9 years.

In terms of ethnicity: 37 per cent were European NZ, 12 per cent were Asian, 24 per cent were Māori and 19 per cent Pasifika. The latter two were over-represented in the statistics compared with their percentages in the population.

Ninety-six per cent of people weren’t wearing a life jacket when their body was recovered.

Manurewa high school student Schlooz now admits reckless behaviour landed her in hospital after almost drowning.

Then 16, Schlooz accompanied her older sister Maddison, 19, and a few of their friends to the west coast beach for a swim while on study leave.

“I remember in the car I had been the one who had suggested let’s go to Muriwai. I think we were all pretty new to it,” Schlooz said.

“I was really excited and we all just ran into the beach. I did not look at the water. There was no one around. I was like yay, free empty beach.”

Schlooz said the sea bed varied rapidly in depth, and suddenly she and the rest of the group could no longer touch the bottom.

“All of a sudden the water got so much deeper. My sister goes ‘guys it’s a rip, make your way back’ and at that point I started to freak out. There were huge waves.”

If it was not for Maddison managing to swim out of the surf and get help, Schlooz says she wouldn’t be alive today.

“It was maybe like 15 or 20 minutes. I was just lying on my back before three or four surfers came out and rescued us. I’d been told I was in and out of consciousness. I had really given up by then.

“All of what I had thought about drowning is so different. To be completely honest, at that point I wanted it to be over. Just trying to stay above the water, it was really hard.”

An Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust chopper was called and flew Schlooz to Middlemore Hospital in a serious condition.

A night’s stay helped her recover from getting so much water in her chest.

Counselling over the past year has helped Schlooz process what happened that day, but she says the experience is still raw.

“I have had a couple of panic attacks for things that haven’t even really been related to the water, a couple of triggers,” she said.

“That day was very hard, it was very traumatic. Just thinking that there was so much I hadn’t done in life and I may not have had the opportunity to do it.”

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