Swimming instructor: poor skills and lack of awareness cause tragedies

Take note – story published 2 years and 11 months ago

This year, the State Fire and Rescue Service (VUGD) has pulled more than 50 victims of drowning from water around Latvia, with almost half of that total since mid-May. There were similar statistics last year and for years before that as Latvia regularly tops the European list of deaths by drowning per capita. The worst year in recent memory was 2010 when there were 236 registered drownings in Latvia. Last year, in 2020, the VUGD logged around half that number with 122 drownings.

Numerous information campaigns have been tried over the years from Presidential appeals to common sense to dramatic video reconstructions of dangerous scenarios. 

Swimming coach Gustavs Zālītis believes that the number of drownings in Latvia is so high, because people still do not appreciate the risks that are potentially posed by bodies of water, and often overestimate the real level of their swimming skills.

Latvian Radio went to Ķīpsala beach in central Rīga on a hot summer day to talk to swimmers.

One beachgoer, Linda, says, "Usually, if you don't feel safe, don't go in the water at all. I can swim, yes. I don't go out of my depth or anywhere I don't feel safe." 

Meanwhile, Oļeg says: "I know how to swim. Only I don't swim here because the water seems too cold. I feel confident in the water. In any case, the main thing is not to swim too far."

Vacationers admit that safety is greatly enhanced by restraining buoys and municipal lifeguards.

"It's a big plus, especially when you're with children... I go in, but very carefully, because I cannot swim," says Inesa.

Eric says, "You can't go too far. There are buoys. The police are on duty. They keep driving around, checking to see if they are drinkers or not, or if someone is asleep."

Meanwhile swimming coach Gustavs Zālītis advises checking whether there are any obstacles or other dangers in the water before swimming.

"There could be an unstable base, mud, or some construction debris or some remnants from bridges, dams or something like that. And check the water quality is adequate. That means not only that it's clean and doesn't stink of sewage, but also that the absence of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) or any other type of plant that may cause allergies, swelling or discomfort."

Zālītis believes that people still do not appreciate the risks that are close to the water, so the number of drownings is high. In addition, people believe that swimming is not a special skill that needs to be learned properly.

"Swimming - a Latvian believes that it is a natural gift and that you don't need to work at it, but statistics unfortunately show that we are lagging behind Europe in the sense that we have these swimming skills at a low level."

Ķīpsala lifeguard Jānis Jansens has a similar opinion, and points out that there are very few good swimmers. He believes that the main problem is human recklessness. Seeing someone behaving boldly in the water and trying to swim beyond the safety buoys, rescuers use a loudspeaker to warn the person and explain that it is potentially life-threatening.

In turn, coach Zālītis believes that this is a complex problem. In order to reduce the number of deaths in the water, there should be more information campaigns and more active training for swimming teachers. The availability of swimming pools is also a problem. Zālītis believes that the whole society is responsible for the large number of drownings.

"It would be very easy to find one culprit, one official who is not doing his job, to reprimand him in public and then the problem will be 'solved', but I think we need to get more involved, we need to ask our municipalities to renovate their bathing areas. We have to teach our children and set an example ourselves," says the swimming coach.


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