Lamma ferry crash

Surrounded by the sea, Hongkongers must learn to swim

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 4:13am

Hong Kong is surrounded by sea and blessed with fine beaches, yet few citizens are good swimmers. That was highlighted tragically on National Day with the Lamma boat collision and the drowning of two teenage boys at Shek O. If swimming had been of greater priority at school, private lessons more affordable and the number of public pools greater, there is a chance that lives would have been saved. First, though, society needs the right mindset.

School is the best place to teach the fundamentals of swimming. But space constraints and cost mean that only a handful of elite schools have such a luxury. Teachers have to turn to public district pools which are not only few and far between, but heavily booked. Many parents also think of education as being about classroom study, not the outdoors.

The result is that a typical student learns only the bare fundamentals of swimming. Private lessons are often seen as too costly. The government recognises the need to learn swimming, but its subsidised lessons are so in demand that those applying get chosen by luck. They need to win a lottery for a class space and enter a ballot to get on the waiting list.

Being surrounded by sea and catching a glimpse of it regularly does not make us experts in marine conditions. Six people have now drowned off beaches since 2010 and hundreds have been rescued and involved in accidents. If safety measures are ignored, the risks are heightened. The two boys who died broke a cardinal rule of beach-going - they decided to go for a dip early in the morning, before lifeguards arrived and safety flags indicating the conditions had been hoisted.

For many, there is no better place than a beach or boat trip to relax. Authorities have a duty to ensure that schools are able to teach swimming to a reasonable standard. For that, there has to be more public pools and affordable lessons. But even with these basics, swimmers have to use common sense by paying attention to notices and warnings and go in the water only when lifeguards are on duty.