It’s the perfect picture: a sunny public holiday, beer in hand, the river coolly winding underfoot – but danger is just below the surface.
Rivers and other inland waters, not rough-and-tumble beaches, are where most Australian drownings occur, says Royal Life Saving’s national manager of research and policy Amy Peden.
But many who find cool comfort in the Murray fail to recognise the risks.
Ms Peden said on average 74 drowning deaths per year occured in rivers with drowning victims, on average, registering a blood alcohol content of 0.20.
On Australia Day, researchers breathalysed revellers at rivers across NSW, including the Murray River in Albury, finding the average BAC of those drinking was 0.110.
The finding was part of a broader study by Royal Life Saving Society and James Cook University which tested 684 people over 16 days across Alligator Creek, the Murrumbidgee River, the Hawkesbury River and the Murray River at Albury.
The research was funded by the federal government through Respect the River.
The danger is close to home
Across the four areas – Albury was home to the highest BAC reading, with one person blowing six-and-a-half times the legal driving limit, 0.334.
Nationwide, the Murray River is the leading river-drowning blackspot, with 72 people having drowned in its waters in the past 15 years – five in Albury alone.
Ms Peden said almost half of people surveyed at Noreuil Park revealed they sometimes or always drank when at the river.
She said there were many persistent misconceptions about drownings, with many people believing people only died in the ocean, or those who drown were from out-of-town, children or weak swimmers.
But more often than not, people are dying close to their home.
“We’re working to change the misconception that all drownings occur in the ocean or beach,” Ms Peden said.
“When we bring up the drownings that have occurred in the Murray in Albury or the Murrumbidgee in Wagga to people at the river, everyone says ‘oh it’s people from out of town, it’s not locals’.
“But the data shows 75 per cent of people who drown live within 100 kilometres of where they die.
“Every local knows the river is dangerous – they can tell you the story of a near-miss they had or they know someone who drowned – but even so they still believe it’s mainly people from out of town.”
‘Drinking and drowning’ sadly common
Ms Peden said while people might be shocked by the high-level of alcohol readings found, she has investigated too many drownings to be surprised.
“No one has ever done a study like this before so I wasn’t sure what to expect but I wasn’t overly surprised by the high findings,” she said.
“When I first started looking into drowning deaths I thought for the first few ‘oh, wow this is a really high BAC’, but the really high numbers kept coming and it sadly starts to make sense – when you’re drinking to that level, there’s not going to be a great outcome if something goes wrong.
“Sadly after 10 years doing this work, it seems to be a very common scenario.”
Ms Peden said it was important to learn about the habits of those who drink near rivers to target drowning prevention and education campaigns.
How alcohol inhibits your survival
It doesn’t matter how you feel, when you’re drinking near a river – you’re not safe.
Ms Peden said you don’t need to be stumbling around drunk or putting yourself in dangerous situations to be at risk.
Being even minimally affected by alcohol heightened the risk of ‘drinking and drowning’ and physically affects your body, she said.
“Obviously people take more risks and jump off things or undertake other risk-taking behavior,” she said.
“Alcohol is a vasodilator, which means blood flow to your skin increases and you feel hotter so you’re able to stay in colder water for longer.
“Alcohol can constrict your vocal cords and cause them to spasm, which makes it hard if you are calling for help.”
As well as being restricted in your ability get help, your ability to help yourself quickly diminishes when drinking alcohol, Ms Peden said.
“Alcohol obviously changes your perception and awareness, you can get quite easily disorientated, particularly in rivers with dark, murky water,” she said.
“You fall in, tumble around a few times and all of a sudden don’t know which way is up, in that situation people panic and don’t make the best decisions.
“Unfortunately it hampers perceptions and that what can make it so deadly.”
Men most at risk, but both genders engage in risky behaviour
One surprising statistic was that men and women had similar drinking and swimming habits. It surprised Ms Peden because drowning victims are more commonly men.
“It was a really interesting finding for us because men make up 80 per cent of drowning statistics,” she said.
There was no firm evidence as to why men were over-represented, but anecdotally she suggested men who had been drinking could be more prone to risky behaviour.
And despite the cool change, she said drownings could happen any time, and in any body of water.
“Drowning can occur all year round, with 40 per cent of the 1103 river drowning deaths in the past 15 years occurring in autumn and winter,” she said.
River users should avoid alcohol, wear a lifejacket, never swim alone, and learn CPR.
While you’re with us, did you know that you can now receive updates straight to your inbox each day at 6am from The Border Mail? To make sure you’re up to date with all the Border and North East news, visit our homepage and sign up.