A solution to senseless drownings?

National Park surf alerts need to cover much wider area to warn all swimmers

Published on August 12, 2014

A Joint Rescue Coordination Centre crew works to recover a woman from the high surf in the ocean near the Crowbush resort in Lakeside Friday.

©Photo special to The Guardian by RCMP

For the fourth consecutive day, swimmers were advised Monday to not go in the water on P.E.I.’s north shore. The drowning death of an American tourist near Crowbush golf course last week should serve as a reminder on the importance of water safety and for a re-examination of protocols protecting visitors and Islanders from dangerous surf conditions.

Strong northerly winds have plagued the province since last Friday, resulting in pounding surf and dangerous rip currents. This comes in the middle of our busiest tourism period. The P.E.I. National Park issues warnings to swimmers about such conditions, which the media are quick to broadcast or post to websites and on social media. The park provides a valuable service but those warnings are issued specifically for the national park along the beaches of Cavendish, Rustico, Brackley, Dalvay, Stanhope, Tracadie and Greenwich. And park visitors who don’t see or hear the warnings prior to arrival are then warned verbally by park staff or see signs that are posted.

But large sections of the north shore are nowhere near the National Park. A visitor or Islander who didn’t have the radio on, or hasn’t been near a computer to receive such warnings, is vulnerable. You can argue that simply looking at surf conditions should alert people that it could be dangerous to enter the water. Most Islanders know that strong north winds will result in dangerous surf and the risk of deadly rip currents.

The National Park has lifeguards on duty and warnings posted to keep swimmers out of the water but most of P.E.I.’s shorelines have no such system. Many provincial parks don’t have lifeguards. How can we get word out to those areas?

When the National Park warnings are issued, there should be an alert system set up so that every hotel, motel, campground and park receives that warning so signs can be posted or warnings issued to their guests. Perhaps a volunteer network could be set up involving community-minded residents living near the shoreline who would also receive alerts, and then go out and post a warning sign. It could be a sort of neighbourhood beach watch.

At the scene of last week’s tragedy, there is an unsupervised public beach at Lakeside, while the Crowbush resort shuttles guests to its nearby beach. But it’s user-beware at both locations.

Even experienced swimmers might think there is no danger wading in waist or shoulders deep water in a big surf, because it’s a thrill and people come to Lakeside and Crowbush to golf or swim. The water is warm and the air temperature is inviting.

All too suddenly, a rip current can pull a swimmer out to sea. The park advisory suggests that swimmers caught in a rip current not panic but panic does set in and a tragedy can happen quickly before anyone has a chance to react.

A rescue helicopter is at least an hour away and little can be done from sea or shore if there is a big surf pounding. To attempt a water rescue puts more people at risk.

There was a general feeling of helplessness on the shore at Crowbush last Friday morning because there was nothing anyone could do. Unfortunately, when an aircraft does arrive, it’s usually too late for a rescue mission.

The best way to avoid such a tragedy is not go near the water during dangerous conditions. Period. And to know when danger exists, some swimmers have to be notified or have those warnings reinforced.

A lesson must be learned from last week’s tragedy.