Man who drowned off Northland beach may not have entered water if warning signs had been erected – Coroner

Far North District Council has been criticised for not having any safety warnings, or flotation devices, at a hazardous beach where a man died trying to save his children, who had got into trouble at Cable Bay.

Coroner Mary-Anne Borrowdale found that soldier Wairongoa Clarence Renata, also known as known as Magoo or Tickety Boo, of Palmerston North, aged 54, died while swimming at Cable Bay Beach, Northland on January 2, 2018.

Coroner Borrowdale found that his death may have been prevented if the Renata family had apprehended the hazards present that day at Cable Bay beach, in which case they may have decided not to swim, to stay close to shore or to take a flotation device with them.

She made several recommendations in her findings, with Far North District Council copping some criticism for complacency, including not having any signs at the beach warning of its potential dangers or any flotation devices if people did get into trouble.

On January 2, 2018 Renata was enjoying a day at the beach at Cable Bay, Northland, with his children and others. Around 4pm the children got into trouble in a rip and he went into the water to try to save them.

He quickly entered the water in an attempt to help them, yelling for help as he did so:
“Somebody save my children, help, help.” There is in evidence a reference by family to the effect that Renata was not, to their knowledge, a strong swimmer.

While trying to save the children, Renata himself encountered difficulties; he was seen towards the north end of the bay, about 75m from shore, calling for help. A Cable Bay resident, who rang 111, said his call for help “had a desperate sound to it.”

Renata went under the water before a rescuer could get to him and despite the best efforts of ambulance crew, he died. His 11-year-old daughter was also pulled form the sea in a serious condition, and taken to hospital where she recovered.

Areport provided to the inquiry by Nick Mulcahy, Aquatic Risk Manager of Surf Lifesaving New Zealand, said Cable Bay is an area that is capable of representing a hazard to members of the public.

Cable Bay is classified as a wave-dominated reflective beach. As such, it is prone to
sudden changes in water depth close to the shore, dumping waves at times, as well as rips and currents. The beach morphology is highly dynamic, and as such the location and severity of hazards, such as rip currents, varies over time.

Mulcahy stated that: “The combination of waves, an incoming tide, rip currents, and sudden changes in water depth posed considerable risk to water users at Cable Bay at the time of the incident.”

He said that flotation devices would have made the Renata family more resilient to these hazard factors, as was borne out by their rescuers being able to reach and assist them by using body-boards and paddle boards.

When discussing why Renata may not have perceived the beach hazards, or may have inaccurately estimated the family’s own resilience to them, Mulcahy stated that there were no apparent risk mitigations in place at Cable Bay at this time.

”I have made enquiry of the Far North District Council, and it remains the case today that no water safety signage is in place at Cable Bay. In a response to my inquiry, the Council stated that: ‘Signage advising of rips were installed many years ago at Cable Bay Beach Reserve, but were removed for reasons unknown and not replaced’,” Borrowdale said.

”My internet search enquiries lead me to believe that water safety warnings for Cable Bay are also not given on regional promotional websites. The principal website appears to be www.doubtlessbay.co.nz, operated by Doubtless Bay Promotion Inc. On this website, in the Beaches section, the text says simply this:
Doubtless Bay has many fine and safe beaches for swimming and water sports. Here is a selection from the huge number of safe bathing beaches awaiting you in Doubtless Bay…
Cable Bay: A beautiful pink-coral and golden sand beach with small lagoon and rock
pools. No information is supplied as to the applicable beach hazards, or how beach-goers might safely mitigate them.”

She said Renata’s is not the only drowning at Cable Bay and so far this century, three other men have drowned at the beach, in 2001 and 2015. All three were Māori men residing in Northland, and aged between 25 and 59.

The coroner said the Operation Flotation charitable trust had since installed five flotation devices in Doubtless Bay: two at Cable Bay, one at Taipa Beach and two at Coopers Beach through fundraising efforts.

”As part of my inquiry I asked the Council why it had not installed water safety signage at Cable Bay following Mr Renata’s death. The Council responded: ‘With the placement of two lifesaving devices located at both Cable Bay Beach Reserve and Little Cable Bay Reserve, Council deemed that this would be sufficient’,” Borrowdale said.

The beach hazards that claimed Renata’s life are, sad to say, a continuing feature of Cable Bay Beach, she said. Surf Lifesaving New Zealand summarised these as: sudden changes in water depth close to the shore, dumping waves at times, rips and currents. It described the beach morphology as highly dynamic, such that the location and severity of hazards such as rip currents, varies over time.

The coroner said the trustees at water safety group Operation Flotation, its enthusiasts and volunteers, are to be commended for their prompt, innovative and focussed action to improve water safety in the Far North.

”The speed with which Operation Flotation was established (within two months of Renata’s death), and the significant improvements it has made in the time since, shows what can be achieved with focus and determination, notwithstanding few financial resources,” Borrowdale said.

”Equally, I am dissatisfied with the complacent approach taken by the Far North District Council to ensuring the mitigation of beach hazards in this region.”

In the first instance, the Council has not installed any safety devices itself. It has been content to rely on the work done by Operation Flotation.

Secondly, the Council has not installed any signage at Cable Bay advising of the known beach hazards.

”It is to my mind wholly unsatisfactory that there remain no water safety warning signs at the approaches to Cable Bay beach. It is apparent from the evidence that this beach is deceptively safe-looking, but in fact contains life-threatening hazards that are hard for people to detect.

”Thirdly, given that the internet is a primary resource for travellers who seek outdoor activities, it is unacceptable that the internet resources pertaining to this popular beach region contain no water safety warnings for Cable Bay, and no safety advice to beach users. Ideally, such warning information should also be available in printed leaflets and other material; but I am less concerned about this, given that the internet is now so heavily used for travel and outdoors information.”

Coroner Borrowdale made a number ofrecommendations, many coming form proposals from Surf Lifesaving NZ including:

■ That the Far North District Council should erect prominent and informative water safety signage at all approaches to the Cable Bay Beach, which meet the requirements of the Australian/ New Zealand standard.

■ That the Far North District Council should extend this water safety signage to other beach areas also, where similar hazards have been identified by Surf Lifesaving New Zealand, namely Taipa Bay, Coopers Beach and elsewhere in Doubtless Bay.

■ That Doubtless Bay Promotion Inc amend its website, containing travel and outdoors information for Cable Bay and other Doubtless Bay beaches, to include prominent warning of the regional beach hazards and advice for their avoidance.

■ That the Far North District Council should expand the “Visiting the Far North” section of its website www.fndc.govt.nz to incorporate water safety warnings and information for Cable Bay Beach and any other areas of known hazards.

■ That water safety agencies, the local authority, emergency services and local residents (including the Operation Flotation Charitable Trust) should work together to develop an emergency response plan, considering the Surf Lifesaving NZ proposals … with a view to developing enhanced risk prevention and emergency response at Cable Bay.

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