Hong Kong cross-harbour swim tragedy prompts plan for new safety measures

Organiser considering extra measures at next event, while lifeguard group insists staff were observant and quick to respond

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 October, 2016, 12:26pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 October, 2016, 8:34pm

The organiser of the annual cross-harbour swim is considering deploying additional lifeguards in canoes next year, after a swimmer drowned and another was left fighting for her life on Sunday.

Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association president Ronnie Wong Man-chiu said there were lifeguards in canoes on both sides of the course during this year’s event.

“What I have in mind for the future is to have the canoes in the middle of the course. But the problem is that swimmers usually have their heads down as they swim, looking up only when they need to see the direction.

“There is a chance the swimmers may hit the canoes,” Wong said during an RTHK programme on Monday.

“But that’s how the lifeguards can reach swimmers the fastest,” he added.

On Sunday, about 3,000 swimmers navigated 1.5km from Lei Yue Mun fishing village in Kowloon to Sai Wan Ho on the other side of Victoria Harbour.

The race course was about 50m wide and Wong said swimmers most at risk were those swimming in the middle of the course. As a result, it would take canoes and subsequently speed boats some time to get to them as they need to look out for and avoid other swimmers.

Patrick Yeung, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Life Saving Society – which was responsible for the lifeguard services at the cross-harbour swim – said the whole process of spotting a drowning swimmer, and then transferring the person to a speedboat, usually takes a few minutes.

In the case of the drowned man, lifeguards were able to reach him within just seconds after spotting him, Yeung said. Media reports, however, said fellow swimmers were the ones who first spotted the drowning man and helped him.

Yeung stressed that the lifeguards who rescued the man were experienced and observant. He supported Wong’s suggestions to have additional lifeguards in canoes in the middle of the course.

At Sunday’s event, lifeguard canoes were stationed along the race course at 30m intervals, each patrolling a section of the water to cover the entire route.

The drowned victim, a 46-year-old man, was pulled unconscious from the water near the finish line at Quarry Bay Park on eastern Hong Kong Island at about 9.30am. A woman, 59, was separately rescued by lifeguards 15 minutes earlier. She remained in critical condition on Monday.

“We have additional safety measures every year. This year, a tragedy happened. We are looking into the incident,” Wong said.

He stressed that the association would do everything it could to help family members of the deceased.