Learn the water safety rules so you can make the most of this summer – safely!

How to stay safe in the water


We are a water-loving nation. New Zealand boasts 15,000 kilometres of coastline, almost 4,000 lakes (larger than one hectare) and 90 percent of us live within 40 minutes of a beach. But those crystal waters and bubbling surf can be a lethal place to play. In 2022, 94 people lost their lives to drowning – the worst number in a decade.  

What water-safety skills are important to learn?

“Any body of water can present risks – whether that’s a pool, lake, river or beach,” says Chief Executive of Water Safety New Zealand, Daniel Gerrard. Daniel says it’s about whānau starting with the basics. “From youngsters to adults and parents, it’s crucial to know how to float, tread water and where not to swim. We often think someone else is watching our children, but avoid making that assumption. Create a roster for who will be responsible for supervising your children and make sure that kids stay within arm’s reach.”

Take swimming lessons if you or your loved ones are not strong swimmers. Learning CPR and first aid skills is also advisable, as they can be lifesaving in emergencies. Make sure everyone in your group knows who to call in the event of an emergency (111 Police). 

Teaching your children about water safety is critical.

Teaching your children about water safety is critical.

Daniel recognises that the cost of learning to swim may be difficult for some families. “Talk to your child’s primary school about Water Skills for Life, a national standard for aquatic education in New Zealand primary schools.” 

If your children need beach education, the Junior Surf programmes run nationwide by Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ) is a great place to start. Andy Kent, National Lifesaving Manager at SLSNZ, says, “our volunteer clubs run this programme every Sunday morning during summer, and we have a membership of over 10,000 kids,” Andy says. “It’s a great way to build fit and healthy kids who learn how to keep themselves and others safe.”

What equipment checks should I do before taking the boat out?

For boaties, that means doing your pre-season maintenance. Rob McCaw, Head of Operations at Coastguard New Zealand, says these regular checks can prevent disaster. “The vast majority of the 3,500 callouts we receive each year are due to engine breakdowns, electrical faults and running out of gas. Most of these are preventable if thorough checks are made before getting on the water.” 

As well as the physical checks, it’s well worth educating yourself on water safety. Coastguard runs 20 programmes nationwide, including Day Skipper and Marine VHF Operator’s Certificate courses. Coastguard also delivers courses to under-serviced communities. Their Folau Malu, Kia Maanu Kia Ora and Chinese programmes have all been well attended.

Which New Zealand beaches are safe to swim at?

When choosing where to go, familiarise yourself with the conditions and review safety notices at each location. Find out what local signs and flags mean. Andy directs people towards safeswim.org.nz. The website, launched last year, gives up-to-the-minute information on swimming conditions and water quality at beaches nationwide. “At SLSNZ, we always advise beachgoers to swim between the red and yellow flags on patrolled beaches,” Andy says. “We have over 4,300 volunteer surf lifeguards at 92 locations around the country. If you do choose to swim at an unpatrolled beach, know your limits and if in doubt, stay out. Trust your gut feeling.”

Always try to swim between the flags.

Always try to swim between the flags.

How do I safely get out of a rip?

New Zealand’s weather can be unpredictable and coastal areas are always susceptible to changing tides. Each beach has its own quirks, such as dangerous currents, strong winds, rips or rough waters, making swimming, boating or any water activities hazardous. Always prioritise your safety and reschedule or change your plans if the weather or tides are unfavourable.

According to Andy, rips are the biggest hazard on New Zealand beaches. As a moving current of water, they can cause people to panic and tire themselves if caught in one. Andy suggests applying the three Rs for survival. “Relax and float. Raise your hand to send for help. Ride the rip,” Andy says. “A rip may take you along the beach or out to sea, but generally it won’t take you kilometres off the beach.”

Is it important to wear a lifejacket during water activities?

Regardless of your swimming abilities, always wear a lifejacket when boating, kayaking, or paddleboarding and make sure it fits properly. It is also advisable to wear a wetsuit or rash guard to protect yourself from cold water, sunburn and potential abrasions.

Coastguard New Zealand and Water Safety New Zealand are advocating for national mandatory lifejacket legislation for those operating vessels six metres and under. 

The Old4New Lifejacket Upgrade campaign is over a decade old, with two Coastguard vans travelling up and down the country delivering fit-for-purpose lifejackets at discounted prices. Last summer, the charity delivered almost 2,500 new lifejackets and took over 3,500 old or damaged lifejackets out of circulation. 

What are the main rules for staying safe in the water?

  1. Be prepared: Learn to swim, set rules for safe play, know the weather and water conditions.
  2. Watch out for yourself and others: Pay close attention to children in or near water. Swim with others and in areas where lifeguards are present.
  3. Be aware of the dangers: Enter shallow and unknown water feet first and obey all safety signs and warning flags. Don’t swim after drinking alcohol.
  4. Know your limits: Have fun but respect the water and your limits. Learn safe ways of rescuing others without putting yourself in danger.


Story by Kathy Catton for the Spring 2023 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Kathy Catton is a Christchurch-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to AA Directions Magazine.

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