It was not long after 6pm on June 6 last year when lifesaver Anthony Turner arrived at Waniora Point, near Bulli, to hear faint calls for help from the darkening sea where a boat carrying three men and a five-year-old boy had capsized.
Residents reported similar pleas. One heard “a pretty-well-blood-curdling scream”, Nine News reported. Led by Turner, 48, a volunteer surf lifesaver since he was 15, it was one of the largest search and rescue operations in the Illawarra’s history. Two men survived, the boy and another man fatally drowned.
In any other year, boating fatalities like these would have been highly unusual. But research has found that offshore drownings in 2019-2020 rose 86 per cent compared with the previous 15 years.
This was driven by a significant change in the type and location of aquatic activities, including an 88 per cent rise in deaths by those boating or using personal watercraft and a 60 per cent increase in rock fishing deaths.
As a result, the risk of dying from boating rose fourfold and the risk of death rock fishing doubled during the pandemic, said Shane Daw, Surf Life Saving Australia’s general manager of coastal safety.
As people avoided crowded beaches, resulting in a 29 per cent drop in drowning on city beaches and an 86 per cent fall in fatal drownings on bays, they tried new aquatic activities in unfamiliar locations.
Yet coastal drownings rose by nearly nine per cent, showed research in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published last month.
Participation in outdoor activities dropped by as much as 64 per cent during the bushfires and 70 per cent during the early months of the lockdown, the paper said. “People were avoiding crowds, smoky locations, and exploring remote areas,” said Mr Daw, who coauthored the study with Dr Jasmin Lawes from the Beach Safety Research Group at the University of NSW.