Life Saving Victoria CEO Catherine Greaves reveals her own near-drowning as COVID-19 post-lockdown toll rises

But with their energy on the verge of vanishing, Greaves realized they were closer to shore and put their feet on the ground.

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

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

“Looking back, we’ve broken so many rules,” says Greaves. “We didn’t tell anyone what we were going to do. We had not checked the conditions. We knew the tides and the currents, but we did not appreciate the situation.

“We actually felt pretty invincible. “

Greaves says she finds the story mortifying now, but she is telling it publicly for the first time in the hopes that it resonates after another deadly season in the water.

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

There have been 27 drownings since July 1, according to Life Saving Victoria, and the death toll is on track with last year’s terrible tally in which the state recorded a high of 61 in 20 years.

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

Explore the causes and Greaves expects incidents and errors in judgment to be found. This includes not wearing a life jacket when fishing or in boats, misjudging swimming skills, not knowing the conditions, and swimming in areas that are not supervised by lifeguards.

Mornington Peninsula chief lifeguard Sas McNamara has carried out too many rescues to count his time patrolling the beach.Credit:Wayne taylor

But Greaves says COVID-19 closures, which have forced more people to vacation at home, are also contributing to the increase in deaths.

Data from the Royal Life Saving Society indicate that up to one in four Australians consider themselves weak swimmers or cannot swim – poor swimming skills being a major contributor to summer drowning. Among 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 have occurred within the person’s postcode, showing the risk comes when it’s least expected.


“People who go on day trips to beaches, or maybe who escape to other waterways they don’t know very well, which may mean not swimming in guarded areas, you know, with people wanting to escape others, I think that’s part of that too, ”Greaves says.

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

Like the hotel industry, the workforce has suffered from the closure of swimming pools. The YMCA, for example, said it mostly employed young people as instructors and lifeguards, and much of that cohort left the industry to find more stable and continuous work.

The Omicron variant also put a strain on the staff.

The long swim from Lorne Pier to Pub Ocean was canceled this week, in part due to the number of volunteers available, while in Melbourne, the Collingwood Leisure Center has temporarily closed due to understaffing.

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

At the Noble Park Aquatic Center in the southeast of the city, YMCA regional director Scott Bryant and center director Michael Zeman are juggling another day trying to fill in the gaps in the rosters.

Michael Zeman, Director of Noble Park Aquatic Center, and Scott Bryant, Regional Director.

Michael Zeman, Director of Noble Park Aquatic Center, and Scott Bryant, Regional Director.Credit:Tammy mills

Mr Zeman says the center lost half of its rescuers during the pandemic, while Bryant adds that the number of lone workers almost doubled every day, from 40 to 80 at some sites.

“It’s increasingly difficult to staff the facilities,” says Bryant.


“The safety of our staff and customers is our number one priority… managing the logistics around that, yes that has been a challenge. “

Longer term, Bryant says the YMCA was trying to attract more lifeguards and instructors by referring them to friends and family, while advertising in schools, universities and local media.

With pay rates typically starting at $ 28 an hour for a casual midweek instructor, the YMCA and Life Saving Victoria are also targeting different demographic groups, such as retirees or those re-entering the workforce who cannot. not work full time.

Although there has been pressure on staff, Bryant says parents need to book children for classes, even if there is a waiting list.

“Our children’s confidence level is very low, which is worrying for a hot summer, so the key message for families is to make it a priority,” he said.

Sas McNamara on the stern deck at Portsea earlier this week.

Sas McNamara on the stern deck at Portsea earlier this week.Credit:Wayne taylor

Mr. Zeman says the regression has been noticeable. During a school swimming carnival organized by its center before Christmas, rescuers had to carry out 15 rescues.

Life Saving Victoria has also rescued more people this year, with 225 rescues carried out in the past six months, a 24% increase from the same period last year. Only 37 of those rescues were between the flags.

On Portsea’s stern beach on a cloudy, quieter day, Mornington Peninsula chief lifeguard Sas McNamara, 24, cannot put a number on the rescues she has carried out. There’s too much.

One of them remains in his mind: the mass rescue of eight children, some under the age of 10, who were swept away by the sea when the sandbank they were on suddenly collapsed. collapsed.

The group was swimming between the flags, but their parents were nowhere near, she said.

“One of the main things is to constantly and actively watch the children around the water. It is so imperative. If you can’t see your child, it’s a child in danger, ”says McNamara.

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

To find the nearest supervised beach, go to

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