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Poor adult swimming skills contribute to summer drownings

Poor adult swimming skills contribute to summer drownings
January 8, 2022

With the nation facing a spike in drowning deaths since the start of summer with 43 people drowning - a 23% increase on the same time last year - Royal Life Saving Society - Australia research has revealed that one in four Australians admit they are weak swimmers, or can’t swim at all.

The Christmas to New Year period (to 3rd January) claimed the lives of at least 20 people, twice as many people as the same period last year with 13 (65%) of those incidents occurred at inland waterways including rivers, lakes, and dams.

At the halfway point of summer the safety message was more important than ever, Royal Life Saving Chief Executive, Justin Scarr advised “few people appreciate just how dangerous our inland waterways can be, particularly those who lack swimming skills and knowledge of local water conditions.

“The calm appearance can often hide steep drop-offs, currents, and debris, and create a false sense of safety relative to beaches.”

Scarr noted that poor swimming skills are thought to be a major factor in drowning over summer - and the lack of skills isn’t limited to children, citing Royal Life Saving research shows that one in four adults are weak swimmers or can’t swim at all.

The figure is much higher in adults who were born overseas, where 35% classified themselves as weak or non-swimmers.

This is concerning given Royal Life also estimates that 40% of children leave primary school not being able to swim 50m or float for two minutes - basic water safety benchmarks.

Scarr advised “we may be at-risk of losing our `Nation of Swimmers’ tag.

“The results of our research is staggering and sadly, we may be seeing that in the increase in drowning incidents over summer”.

Federal Minister for Sport, Richard Colbeck, said the Australian Government was working harder than ever to ensure people of all ages understood the dangers and had the swimming skills to keep themselves and others safe, citing investment in ensuring equipment is upgraded and life saving volunteers can access vital programs to strengthen skills.

With the support of the Federal Government, Royal Life Saving and Surf Life Saving work with the Australian Water Safety Council, State and Territory organisations, and local communities to prevent drowning across the country and increase water safety awareness.

Additionally, swimming teachers are being encouraged to return to the pool to strengthen skills and save lives under the latest investment into AUSTSWIM programs announced last month.

The program will focus on re-engaging with swimming teachers who have left the industry and support them to return to the water.

Minister Colbeck advised “this season’s drowning toll is too high.

“It only takes a few seconds for somebody to encounter trouble in the water and we know only too well the consequences this has on families.

“We remain committed to ensuring Australians of all ages are equipped with the skills and understanding they need to prevent another holiday tragedy.”

Reiterating that Australians needed a better understanding of the skills needed when swimming at rivers, lakes and dams - or wading at unpatrolled beaches, Scarr went on to say “currents can easily drag people into deeper water at rivers, lakes and the beach, where they are unable to stay afloat long enough for rescue or swim their way to safety.”


When asked about why they couldn’t swim 36% of respondents reported fear of the water prevented them from swimming, and 11% said it was due to their parents also not being able to swim.

Here Scarr noted “even though many people fear the water, the holiday period increases the likelihood that non-swimmers enter the water to play or sit in the shallows.

“It really is a case of knowing your limitations, being aware of the environment and avoiding getting out of your depth.”

Alcohol continues to be a drowning issue over summer with 24% of adults surveyed saying they sometimes enter the water after consuming alcohol.

Queenslanders and West Australians admitted they were the most likely to swim after drinking, causing Scarr to add “it is the holiday message we are almost sick of delivering. Avoid alcohol around water. Make the right call and keep you and your mates safe.”

Royal Life Saving is reminding Australians to enjoy the water safely this summer. Wherever you are in Australia, these are our top five tips to enjoy the water safely:

  • Always supervise children around water
  • Avoid alcohol around water
  • Wear a lifejacket when boating and fishing
  • Avoid going alone
  • Know the conditions

As at 7th January 2022, 43 Australians have already lost their lives to drowning.

For updates, go to

Images: Adult swimming class at Blacktown Leisure Centre Stanhope (top, credit: Blacktown City Council), Federal Minister for Sport Richard Colbeck (middle) and Royal Life Saving Chief Executive Justin Scarr (below).

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