Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

It's time we made waves about our swim tragedies

The River Roe, Limavady, where 15-year-old Ballyclare boy Steven Mitchell died
The River Roe, Limavady, where 15-year-old Ballyclare boy Steven Mitchell died

Another week and another spate of drownings which should not have happened. Having been brought up in Sandy Bay on the south eastern shores of Lough Neagh, I was all too familiar from a young age with the dangers of deep water.

As a child I was playing with a bucket and spade on the shore at nearby Lady Bay when two young Glenavy brothers jumped off the wreckage of an old boat and drowned in a sand hole. The lough bed is full of these depressions caused by the extraction of sand for glass and concrete making, among other purposes.

That sun-drenched afternoon in the mid-70s, it seemed to take an age before the pitiful little white bodies of the boys were brought out of the water. It was probably an hour or so, and I remember the local priest saying their souls had already left their remains when he knelt to pray for them.

I also happened to be swimming in Barton's Bay near Aghagallon when a local man was drowned there just over 30 years ago. He had drifted out from the shore with a tyre around his waist and got into difficulties when it slipped off. To add to the tragedy, his cries for help had been ignored because his friends thought he was just messing around.

Around the same time, a 17-year-old west Belfast boy died when his dinghy imploded in Sandy Bay in the middle of the night, on his way back from a trip to Rams Island.

His name was Robbie Saunders and his body was not recovered for 11 days. On each of those agonising days, his family and friends came to look for him, in the vain hope that he'd made it to shore and got lost, or hit his head and was wandering around somewhere with amnesia.

His two teenage companions that night, Owen Hillis and Francis Mooney, had managed to swim ashore and landed at my parents' house, shuddering and traumatised. They became family friends for life, enthusiastically helping Dad with the hay and harvesting every year, and as time passed and our summers cooled, reports of drowning became fewer and further between.

But last week (at the time of writing I'm not counting the weekend just past), there were three drowned here in Northern Ireland and a further 11 in the Republic. That's 14 people – and-counting – on this small island. In the Republic around 140 people drown every year. The Irish Water Safety say if people exercised more caution these could be prevented – but with more hot weather forecast for August, what exactly are they and our own authorities doing to stop them?

In the face of the growing drowning statistics, the seeming indifference of the environmental authorities is hard to stomach. How many people need to die in a country surrounded by water and full of rivers, streams quarries and lakes – including the largest one in the British Isles – for some definitive action to be taken?

Fresh water in particular can be unexpectedly cold, causing numbness and cramp in even experienced swimmers. There is simply no 'acceptable level' of drowning in a heatwave, just as there was none for violence here either.

The public are simply not fully aware of the dangers of water. There were no warning signs when those little brothers from Glenavy and the Aghagallon man drowned on those sunny afternoons by sandy shores full of families paddling and picnicking – and there still are not enough on our waterways.

Moreover, there are generations of children leaving school without having been taught how to swim, never mind basic water safety guidelines, such as never swim alone; don't swim when you're hot or tired; don't swim in strange places; don't swim after food; watch out for your companions in the water, and always swim parallel or close to the shoreline.

Those rules – which should be stamped on all of us whatever our age – must include the advice not to swim after drinking alcohol. The fourth drowning victim that had a direct impact on my memory was a student who was swept away from some rocks into the Irish Sea after too many pints.

You always think that, surely after such a huge tragedy, people would be so careful it couldn't happen again. But I wouldn't bet on it – time blurs as well as heals, unless there is a concerted effort to keep danger to the forefront of our sun-starved, water-loving consciousness.

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