Drownings at Shek O beach go unrecorded

A spate of drownings at Shek O Beach - several of which have gone unrecorded - and countless rescues have local residents decrying the lack of safety measures, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 June, 2013, 10:46am

The morning after Mid-Autumn Festival last year, Shek O resident Mark Pollard and his family went outside to check what state the celebrations had left the beach in. But they found a mess of a much worse kind.

"There were some kids playing in the waters in front of lifeguard tower three," he recalls. Then Pollard, an architect, noticed a youngster dashing up the beach to grab a life buoy. Within minutes other people were stripping off and running into the sea.

It was clear they were in trouble. Pollard, the third man into the water, fished three struggling children out of the waves. "After we got them on the beach, they told us two more were missing."

The two missing teenagers drowned. As tragic as their losses were, drowning deaths and rescues are far more frequent in Shek O waters than most people realise. If you look at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department statistics, just one person drowned in 2011 at the 41 gazetted swimming beaches it runs, and two in 2012. Of last year's deaths, one was at Shek O.

But a number of residents and lifeguards at Shek O believe there were nine drowning deaths off the beach in 2011, and seven in 2012, says Matthew Glencross, an educator and surfer who has lived in the village for 13 years.

The LCSD doesn't dispute the estimate. The department only records drowning deaths that occur during the hours when lifeguards are on duty - between 8am and 7pm from June to August, and between 9am and 6pm in April, May, September and October. Drowning deaths outside those times and during winter months are unreported. Hence, the discrepancy in statistics.

Shek O is one of Hong Kong's most popular swimming beaches. As lifestyles change and interest grows in water sports - such as surfing and boogie boarding - more people are visiting the beach than ever before. The LCSD estimates that one million people visited Shek O beach annually in the past two years.

So while, in the past, there would only be five or six surfers out on the waves at any one time, now "there are hundreds", says Kenneth Howe, a businessman and long-time resident.

Rising visitor numbers, however, have not been accompanied by greater public awareness or improved measures to keep fun-seekers from harm. Only four drowning deaths occurred at beaches in the Austrialian state of Victoria last year - which has 2,000 kilometres of coastline and hundreds of beaches.

One of the world's most famous beaches, Bondi Beach in Sydney, which attracts more than 2.5 million visitors annually, hasn't had a drowning death in over two years. This contrasts with Shek O's resident-estimated seven deaths in 2012.

The unfavourable comparison has prompted some residents to mockingly dub Shek O the most dangerous beach the world. Alex Kwok Siu-kit, a spokesman for the 900-member Hong Kong & Kowloon Lifeguard Union, can relate to this. "There are over 100 incidents [when people require treatment after rescue] there each year," he says.

This makes Shek O the most treacherous of the gazetted beaches. "It has some of the biggest waves and the most drowning incidents in Hong Kong. Of all the beaches in Hong Kong, our lifeguards in Shek O need to go into the water most often to rescue people."

Official figures give a false picture of calm, Kwok says.

"The LCSD says there are only 300 incidents in all beaches in Hong Kong. But the actual figure is over 20 times that because the department only counts serious incidents in which the rescued require resuscitation and follow-up hospital visits."

Less serious rescues, which don't involve a hospital visit, are not counted, he says, because the LCSD views such cases as "giving a hand" rather than a rescue.

Drowning deaths in Shek O often result from inexperienced swimmers getting caught in rip currents - rapidly moving, narrow channels of water that flow out to sea. Swimmers familiar with ocean conditions know to swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current. But less experienced people often panic, and wear themselves out by fighting the current and drown.

One rip in Shek O occurs near a rocky outcrop, while another in front of lifeguard tower one migrates up and down the beach at roughly 20-minute intervals.

Rips can arise at any beach where there are breaking waves. Glencross, who estimates he has rescued about seven people a year from Shek O waters, reckons conditions there are "not exceptionally dangerous".

Gordon Tse-Chi-hing, a consultant for the Shek O Residents' Association and a regular swimmer, agrees. "I've been swimming here for more than 15 years. I know the currents and when not to get in the water. There are currents and deep spots, but I think the most dangerous thing about the beach is the weather. People need to know not to swim in bad weather."

Glencross adds: "There's a lack of awareness on the part of the general public. You can't treat swimming in waves like swimming in a pool."

Similarly, Howe, who has been saving panicked swimmers off Hong Kong Island's south side for years, is frustrated at the lack of preventive action.

"A lot of times drownings are due to pure panic and signage would be a great prophylactic response," he says. "If [LCSD officials] just had a more proactive, preventative mindset, a lot of this could be avoided."

Glencross adds: "The popularity of water sports in Hong Kong has increased hugely in the past 10 years. But whether it is the training of lifeguards, or education of the public, the LCSD hasn't kept up with that growth.

"People are going to use the beach regardless. So, it's up to the government to promote an education programme in some way ... It wouldn't cost a lot of money to educate people on ocean safety."

A lack of common sense is a factor in some drowning deaths: swimming while intoxicated, going into deep water without knowing how to swim, and swimming fully clothed. Diving off the pontoons in the dark and surfacing underneath them is another potential death trap.

The beach at Shek O slopes steeply into the sea, so swimmers can quickly find themselves out of their depth. Weak swimmers often rely on rubber boats or flotation devices - foam floats, noodle toys, rafts and so on - to venture out of their depth. But these aren't always sufficient to keep them safe, especially if a wave tips them out of a boat

"There were two rescues in the hour I was down on the beach last Thursday," Glencross says. "One lady was struggling incredibly. She had an [inflatable] ring around her but got flipped over as she came into the surf and the rip pulled her back out and she was really struggling. Some surfers got to her and rescued her."

Dr Patrick Yeung Che-to, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Lifesaving Society, which offers rescue training, says that the government has introduced measures at Shek O and Big Wave Bay. The two beaches have jet skis, instead of inflatable boats, which cannot be restarted after capsizing. A jet ski can be restarted once it is set in an upright position again.

The LCSD says lifeguards made 11 rescues at Shek O beach during service hours between June 1 and June 19 this year, but no one drowned. The department says it constantly strives to strengthen awareness of water safety and advises swimmers to avoid entering the sea outside lifeguard service hours or when red flags or shark warnings are hoisted.

To residents such as Glencross, that response is inadequate.

"In 1994, we had four people taken by sharks in four weeks. The government poured money into sending people down to Australia to be educated, then installed nets on every swimming beach," says Glencross. "There were nine deaths on one beach in 2011 and the reaction is what?"

Shaking his head, he adds: "My kids, who are 11 and 13, have seen at least three bodies pulled up on the beach and have come up to me saying: 'Dad, he was all blue!'"

Glencross and other residents have organised water safety classes to teach their children the basics about swimming in the sea and how to deal with rips.

Pollard says he has taught his three young children, who can all swim, that "you've got to respect the ocean and be safe. They're confident but not naive".


Surf instructor Matthew Glencross offers a few tips to ensure a safe time at the beach:

1. Don't fight the ocean if you find yourself in trouble; conserve your energy and go with the flow. If you get caught in a rip swim diagonally across it until you feel the current release its grip.

2. Never use the ropes that demarcate the swimming area or shark nets to pull yourself out to sea. You can easily get out of your depth.

3. Remember that beach and surf conditions can change quite suddenly. Calm seas can turn into turbulent surf with strong rips in the space of an hour.

4. Don't rely on flotation devices such as blow-up rings to keep you safe if you are not a competent swimmer.

5. Heavy clothing, alcohol and darkness do not mix with swimming in the ocean.

Additional reporting by Elaine Yau