The Mighty Murray provides plenty of fun for people of all ages, but it has a dark side. Without warning, it can grip you, drag you down and pin you, leaving you with cramps and in panic. Yet there are simple steps you can take to ensure you are not another victim.
IT’S a moment I will never forget.
It was cold. It was dark. It was deathly silent and I was quickly running out of air.
I had a near-drowning experience in the Murray River when I was 15 years old.
On a three-day canoe trip with a group of adults and kids, my friend and I saw one of the dads float down a two-foot waterfall and thought it would be fun.
We didn’t tell anyone we were going. We weren’t wearing life jackets. We weren’t aware of the danger.
But that quickly changed.
AS we floated towards the top of the drop we noticed the water was white and churning.
We cried out in surprise and took a deep breath as the current quickly sucked us under.
Down, down, down we went until the surface of the water was just a glimmer of light metres above our heads.
I didn’t panic. I started swimming up towards the light but each time I got within a metre of the surface, the river sucked me back down.
After my third attempt, I realised I didn’t have much time — my lungs were running out of air.
I stared at the light and time appeared to slow. I realised how stunningly quiet it was beneath the churning water above.
I stared at the light and I remember thinking how beautiful it looked.
And then, just as I thought “this is it”, I broke through the surface to find three distraught adults desperately scanning the water.
Having both surfaced, my friend and I swam shakily to the bank, not quite realising just how lucky we both had been.
I'VE got myself out of trouble in the Murray many times.
I’ve been trapped in a whirlpool, found myself tangled in tree branches underwater and had to swim against the current to escape barbed wire fences hidden beneath the surface.
I don’t fear the river, but I absolutely respect it. Unfortunately, not everyone else does.
THE Murray has claimed two people in the Border region this summer, yet every weekend I see children swimming without adequate supervision, youths rolling drunk on inflatable tubes and daredevils jumping off trees.
I even saw a father encouraging two boys no older than eight to flip off the bank into water less than a metre deep.
Royal Life Saving Society Australia figures show there have been 33 drownings in the Border region in the decade up to June last year. Of those, 16 occurred in a river, creek or stream.
But have you ever wondered how many people get into trouble without the public hearing about it?
Life Saving Victoria figures show that while 41 people drowned (not just in rivers) in that state last year, at least 90 were admitted to hospital for near-drowning incidents.
Here on the Border, our stretch of the Murray is considered more dangerous than many other parts.
The fact that our water is drawn from the bottom of Lake Hume, far beyond the reaches of the sun, makes it colder than further downstream.
Plus, the power behind its release makes its current faster than other points further downsteam.
ALBURY and Border Rescue Squad captain Stuart Dye has retrieved more than 50 bodies from the Murray River during his 38 years with the organisation.
Twelve have been recovered from the stretch between Albury’s Spirit of Progress Bridge and Noreuil Park alone.
While the dangers of the beach are well-publicised and understood, he says the risks of river swimming are often underestimated.
The water temperature can drop up to 15 degrees within a metre of the surface, prompting cramps and asthma attacks in people who jump straight in on a hot day.
Being in the water for prolonged periods can also slowly induce hypothermia.
“If you’re not a fit person it creeps up on you,” Mr Dye says of the cold.
“You feel fine but then slowly you get fatigued. Suddenly your muscles stop working as efficiently and you’re further from the bank than you realise.”
Many people underestimate the strength of the current and how hard it is to pull yourself away from a tree if you suddenly become pinned.
And then there are the undercurrents — the “eddies” that cause water to dip, swirl and turn back on itself.
Mr Dye says many people do not realise the water can be flowing in one direction on the surface and the complete opposite direction underneath.
“We had one particular case in Corowa where a guy went over the side of a bridge and got swept up in an undercurrent. We ended up finding his body 25m upstream of where he had fallen in,” he says.
THEY are dangers Clark Watson knows all too well.
Ten years ago the Wodonga man was floating with two girls around the bend at Mungabareena Reserve when he found himself in trouble.
A skinny fellow with not an ounce of fat on him, the cold water had come as a shock and he began to cramp in his shoulders and arms.
Within minutes, he was struggling to keep his head above water and rapidly grew weak.
“My body was really straining and it just started shutting down,” he said.
“The pain in my arms and shoulders was unbelievable and it was like my legs were just moving in porridge.
“Every time I got within two to three metres of the bank, an eddy would grab me and pull me back out to the middle.”
The girls were only five to six metres in front of Clark but he could not call for help.
“People typically say that when someone is drowning they don’t thrash around, they just sink. That’s what was happening to me,” Clark says.
He reckons he was about 30 seconds away from death when he grabbed hold of a willow branch “thinner than your little finger” and held tight as it swung him back towards the bank.
ALBURY girl Riley Barrow also had a near-miss in the river’s dangerous undercurrents.
A few years ago, she was floating from the waterworks reserve to Doctor’s Point with friends.
She ducked her head under the water and closed her eyes, content to cruise along with the current.
Little did she know, an undercurrent was sucking her to the bottom of the river.
“I didn’t realise I was being pulled further down until a friend reached in and grabbed my hand to pull me up,” she says.
“I had been pulled down two to three metres and I realised as soon as I broke the surface that something had gone wrong.”
Mr Dye says panic is the biggest factor that contributes to people drowning.
It causes a person’s heart-rate to rise, their breathing becomes fast and shallow and often they start thrashing around.
This prevents them thinking clearly but, more importantly, uses vital energy needed to keep afloat.
PANIC could easily have killed Albury’s Stefan Kolisnyk.
At the age of 22, he went swimming at Noreuil Park with a mate and an 18-year-old girl.
They decided to float from Union Bridge to the Mitta Canoe Club but made a vital mistake — they assumed the girl could swim.
Soon after entering the water she realised she could not touch the bottom and panicked.
Seeing her in distress, the boys tried to convince her to float on her back but she was too distraught to listen.
They put her arms around each of their shoulders but she was thrashing around so much she was pulling them under.
“In the end, we had to try to take turns, with one of us pulling her in while the other got more air,” Stefan says.
“It took us a good five minutes and we ended up taking in a lot of water.”
Afterwards, the girl apologised.
“She’d never been in any water except for a backyard pool and I think she was too embarrassed to pipe up and tell us she wasn’t a strong swimmer,” Stefan says.
“I think she just assumed she’d be able to touch the bottom.”
MR Dye does not want to scare people away from the river because, ultimately, it is there to be enjoyed.
But he urges people to be cautious and aware of their abilities.
“It’s like anything, you can do it 100 times and then on the 101st time something goes wrong,” he says.
If you do find yourself in trouble, Mr Dye’s biggest tip is to go with the flow.
“It might take a good 10 minutes but the current will bring you to a bank where you’ll be able to grab a snag or log and drag yourself out of the water,” he says.
“If you can, float with your feet out in front of you so if you get pinned on a tree or snag, you can use your legs to push yourself off.
“Just don’t panic, because while you’re struggling you’ll be using energy and strength you need to get back to safety.”
** Put children in lifejackets and always supervise from right beside them, not up on the bank
** Try not to swim alone but if you do, stick to well-populated areas where there will always be people around to help
** Tell someone when you’re going swimming, where and what time you intend to come home so they can alert authorities if you are late
** Always check the water before jumping in, even if you visit the same place every time
** If you’re unsure about the current, throw a stick in and watch where it goes