Tuesday 21 July 2015

A spotlight on drowning

This time last year, I spent a long weekend with Dau.II (re)learning how to sail on Lough Derg.  As an experience, it was, like the curate's egg "good in parts": the pedestrian aspects were the best.  Having a pint in a bar before dinner and after a day in the fresh air. Getting a really tasty clam-chowder down my neck for lunch. Toasting the lake in ginger-beer from solid ground after we had wrapped up the whole experience without finishing up in the drink.  Two things I didn't mention in my report last year because they were still raw.

After two days of instruction with a competent sailor, we allowed to take the company boat out on the lake on our own for the day.  It started well, the wind was barely stroking the surface of the water, I told the office that we were heading off to the Clare shore again. When we got out on the open face of the lake the wind got up to a modest Force 4 and the boat started pick up speed and to heel over in the way it is designed to do. Suddenly the illusion of Cap'n and crew being in charge was rudely unsettled: jakers the floor wasn't even horizontal anymore. It would almost be true to say that there were a couple of puddles in the bilges of our craft that didn't come in over the side.  Luckily Sailing 101 lessons had included instructions for turning the boat into the wind to take the speed off.  We turned round before we were half-way to our intended destination and lurched and waltzed back across the lake to port. When we sat on a bench a couple of metres from the shore with a couple of bottles of ginger-beer, there was a sense of never-again.

When we went out on Sunday morning for our second day's instruction, we noticed that there was a police car on the other side of the marina, which was still there when we got back in the evening.  The previous night, a retired couple who lived on one of the yachts had been returning home after a few drinks in the pub in the village. She missed her footing and plunged into the water between dock and home and had drowned; there was nothing effective that her husband could do about it. As one of the marina workers said cynically: that yacht will be for sale soon. All assurances from the same chap that it was impossible for us to tip out of the sail-boat of which we'd been give in charge were slightly less credible given the continued presence of the police-cruiser.

This all came back to me last week because of an ad on the wireless from the RNLI lifeboats which had the chilling sentence "Half the people who drowned last year didn't intend to get wet".  A third of the coastal drownings occurred when the victims were "walking or running" for example; while only 10% involved people who were making a living on the sea. The sea can be both unpredictable and unforgiving but in absolute terms it is still less dangerous than cars. It is absolute numbers that the government should concentrate on when deciding how many tax-dollars should be spent on advice and propaganda. In 2014, in Ireland, 114 people drowned, compared to 190 dead on the roads in 2013 [most recent easily available data: 2013 RTA deaths was the first blip up after 5 years of steady decrease].  The drownings were highly skewed as to sex-ratio 80M:20F.  Men dying more by accident (50%) than suicide (25%) and women more by suicide (50%) than accident (25%). Although because of the skewed sex-ratio the common cause of death by drowning is 'accidents happening to men'.  Second in the list of 22 contributory factors is alcohol consumption; which has the ring of plausibility: young men drink too much and do silly things on the edge of the water. The sea may be unpredictable and unforgiving but, in general, you either die or you don't.  If the RNLI or the lifeguard or one of your sober pals fish you out of the drink in time you're likely to make a full recovery.  This is not so for drinking too much (or at all if current drink-driving rules are followed) and driving a car where there is a long grey desolate area between easeful death and walking away from the wreck: broken limbs, broken spine, broken hopes.  The relative hazard of water vs cars is hard to quantify but I'm sure water will kill you more effectively if measured in person-contact hours.  We all spend hours and hours on the road each year but only a few venture near or on the water with regularity.  Me, for example [I'm normal!]: I spend 2.5% of my time [225 hrs] commuting to work by car - less than I spend preparing and eating food [500 hrs] or bloggin' [750 hrs]; but that's still far more than I spend at hazard from drowning . . . walking, or running near water.

Now here's some data that I am at a loss to explain, so I'll share it uninterpreted.  UK data source. As in Ireland UK drownings disproportionately (75%) male.

Ireland UK Ratio
Total pop 4.5m 60m 1:13
RTA deaths 162 (2012) 1574 1:10
Drowning 150 218 1:1.5
In contrast to Seamus Heaney's assertion "Man to the hills, woman to the shore. (Gaelic proverb)" Irish men appear to have a dangerous, too often fatal, fascination with water.


  1. Hi Bob, interesting read. I've been thinking about the drowning ratio and I believe it's due to a subtle difference between Ireland and the UK. In Ireland, our most populated areas are actually coastal counties. In contrast, England's population is more-frequently concentrated in landlocked counties.

    Since Ireland is such a small country, there is a relatively short distance to the sea from most areas. Even the areas right in the centre are surrounded by lakes and rivers due to Ireland's high rainfall, so water has become a huge part of the lifestyle, here. The situation is a little different in the UK since a lot of the inner cities don't have easy access to beaches. Thus, the maritime hobbies are replaced with something more convenient. It's still a shockingly low figure compared to Ireland's, though.

    1. I think you're on to something. It's also worth noting that many of the inland lakes of Ireland have life-guards in the Summer. And as I described, their share of deaths. And it's not only, or even mostly, beaches than drown people. Inner-city Dubliners are happy to plunge into the canals [eeeuuw] - all wearing wet-suits nowadays - the wimps - and a significant proportion of the UK drowning stats involve bathtubs.