The Virgin Islands, a paradise known for its stunning beaches and crystal-clear waters, attracts visitors and residents alike to indulge in aquatic activities. However, amidst the beauty lies a concerning reality: Water-related accidents, including drownings, continue to occur. Over the recent Easter weekend, tragedy struck once again as a child drowned in the sea at Savannah Bay in Virgin Gorda. It’s imperative to address this issue comprehensively to prevent further loss of lives and ensure that everyone can enjoy the waters safely.

Scope of the issue

Statistics in the United States reveal a stark disparity in swimming skills among different demographics. According to research commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation, 64 percent of African American, 45 percent of Hispanic/Latino, and 40 percent of Caucasian children in the US have limited to no swimming abilities. Alarmingly, African American children aged 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than their white counterparts. Moreover, emerging data indicates higher fatality rates among Native American/Alaskan Natives and Black/African American children in open-water incidents.

Economic factors also play a role, with 79 percent of children in US households earning less than $50,000 annually having inadequate swimming skills.

What are the corresponding statistics in this territory? Does this information exist here? Do we have access to it? The BVI Swim School and the BVI Swim Federation both work hard, but they could do much more with better facilities. Imagine an indoor Olympic-sized pool at the college providing next-level aquatic training and education.

Prioritising water safety

In response to the concerning statistics abroad, it’s imperative to prioritise water safety education and training. The American Red Cross’s swimming and water safety programme stands at the forefront of this initiative in the US, offering comprehensive courses and resources to equip individuals with essential survival skills. This includes not only learning to swim but also understanding water safety protocols and emergency responses.

The American Red Cross emphasises the “Circle of Drowning Prevention,” consisting of five crucial layers of protection:

  • Learning swimming and water-safety survival skills.
  • Swimming in lifeguarded areas.
  • Ensuring children and inexperienced swimmers wear US Coast Guard-approved life jackets.
  • Providing close and constant supervision to children near water.
  • Installing adequate barriers around pools and spas to prevent unsupervised access.

Should all our swimmable areas in the territory have lifeguards and equipment or be off limits? How does one barricade a beach?

General safety tips

Implementing general water safety practices is essential for everyone, regardless of swimming ability. Some key tips to remember include the following:

  • Always swim in designated areas supervised by lifeguards.
  • Avoid swimming alone; always have a buddy to assist and seek help in emergencies.
  • Adhere to all rules and posted signs at swimming locations.
  • Refrain from mixing alcohol with boating, swimming or diving activities.
  • Wear a life jacket while boating, as it can be a lifesaving measure in emergencies.

Boating safety

Boating is a popular activity in the VI, but it comes with its own set of risks. Here again, the US has statistics that may be instructive for the territory.

In 2012 alone, there were 4,515 recreational boating accidents in the US, resulting in 651 deaths and 3,000 injuries. Wearing a life jacket and acquiring boating safety education are crucial steps to prevent accidents and ensure a safe boating experience. Do we have such stats for the VI?

To enhance water safety awareness and preparedness, individuals are encouraged to enroll in Red Cross lessons in swimming, water safety training, first aid, CPR, and use of automated external defibrillators. The BVI Red Cross holds Red Cross trainings locally, while the American Red Cross holds many online courses and components. Its Swimming and Water Safety Manual offers valuable guidance for various aquatic activities and environments.

In the VI

I have to wonder what we are thinking as a territory? Who is managing this risk ? Our sea is one of our most valuable natural resources and a cornerstone of our tourism product.

Swimming has so many benefits, and swim programmes foster youth development and employment opportunities. It seems like a no-brainer to me to immediately implement a water safety programme. Prioritising water safety is paramount in the VI to prevent further tragic incidents and ensure that residents and visitors can enjoy aquatic activities responsibly. By fostering awareness, providing comprehensive education, and implementing preventive measures, we can strive towards a safer environment for all to enjoy the natural wonders of our beloved islands.