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Respect the flags


Respect the flags

Drowning statistics make for sobering reading, says Jane Stephens, who argues more has to be done to ensure beach-goers follow the rules.

The edge of the earth is where we like to play in summer. The ocean and rivers draw us in. But Mother Nature plays no favourites and the swell takes no prisoners. Too many novices and visitors are forgetting this.

I worry in this era of ‘me first’ the red and yellow safety zone has lost its pulling power. It used to be visitors and holidaying beach-goers were grateful for the flags. But in holiday times, when the beaches become crowded, I worry beach-goers are increasingly opting for space over safety.

The 2021 National Drowning Report shows 66 people drowned in Queensland last summer season and eight of those were on the Sunshine Coast – all outside the flags. In the 2020-21 summer, lifeguards, surf lifesavers and lifesaving services in Australia performed 8064 rescues. Of those, 2704 were in Queensland and 334 were on our patch.

The science shows it takes three minutes to drown if you are taking in water and if the sentinels of the surf can’t see you, they can’t save you.

Considering where many people choose to splash and dip, it is clear they have no idea about how to read the surf.

Every surf beach has strong, narrow flowing rip currents heading offshore. They are part of what creates the pump of the surf, taking the water from the broken waves back out again. These rip currents at unpatrolled locations were thought to be responsible for the 150 per cent increase in rescues last year.

The flags are placed to avoid these and other hazards like dumping waves and gutters. All the evidence shows the flags work, but people have to believe that. I reckon those ignoring the rules were doing so deliberately.

Men accounted for nine in 10 coastal drowning deaths last year, with booze, drugs and over-estimating their ability considered key factors.

Surf lifesavers do extraordinary work, but if the red and yellow flags have lost their potency, something has to be done because not a single life has been lost between the flags in Queensland. We can’t allow a near perfect record to be ruined due to ego and arrogance. The time has come to seriously consider fines for those deliberately disobeying authoritative directions to move into the flags. A hip-pocket hit might steer them in the direction of safety.


Jane Stephens is a USC journalism lecturer, media commentator and writer.

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