Government-subsidised swimming lessons are so in demand that applicants not only need to win a lottery for a class space, but must also enter a ballot for a place on the waiting list.
The crisis could be eased if swimming lessons were a higher priority in schools, said Alex Kwok Siu-kit, general secretary of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Lifeguards' Union.
Kwok said the ferry collision off Lamma and the recent tragic drowning of two teenagers at Shek O demonstrated that swimming lessons should be as important as classroom studies.
"I'm not discriminating against our nation, but our culture is so conservative and the government doesn't care about sports training," he said at the Tai Wai public pool where he works as a lifeguard.
"Many parents protect their children from outdoor activities, such as swimming and hiking."
This meant Hongkongers often lacked basic water skills, he said. Kwok added that a proposal by marine officials to force children to wear lifejackets on ferries was not the smartest way to protect young passengers.
"Instead, teach them how to swim," he said, noting that in some cases wearing a lifejacket can hinder a passenger's escape from a sinking ship. Giving children and adults basic water skills, such as being able to swim at least 100 metres, may mean fewer people drown, he said.
Kwok said if he had been on the doomed ferry with his family, he would have worried more for his wife than his children - she cannot swim while his two teenagers learned when they were three years old.
A lifeguard since the age of 16 years old, Kwok also called on the government to increase the number of subsidised classes as the cost of private lessons was beyond many families.
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department's swim programme began in 2000 and costs HK$100 at public pools in the New Territories and HK$108 in urban areas for 10 one-hour lessons. One lesson at a private swim school can cost upwards of HK$200.
The LCSD is planning to increase swimming courses by seven per cent this year.
Swimming is not a compulsory part of the curriculum and the Education Bureau does not keep a record of which schools offer such lessons.
Kwok estimated that just one in five Hongkongers knew how to swim. "It should be higher than that. We are a rich city and surrounded by water.
"We should be better."