Not waving, drowning

<photo by Brian Hartigan>

Veteran Irish songwriter Andy Irvine took a moment during his recent concert in Brisbane to tell a story about the day he was almost a drowning victim off a New South Wales beach. You could hear an intake of breath among the devotees gathered at the Old Museum. A founding member of the 1970s super group Planxty, Irvine visits Australia over and over – loves the place. After his first-half gig, he told us he had to leave almost immediately to drive to Sydney, where he would catch a flight to Tasmania next day. The life of a troubadour.

As he told it, the near-drowning happened when he was swimming at a beach in northern NSW. He got caught in a rip.
“I didn’t even know what a rip was,” he told the audience. “All I knew was the harder I swam the further out to sea it took me.” Close to exhaustion, wondering if his time was nigh, Andy dimly heard a gruff voice off to his right: “Oi, mate, over here.”
“I knew it,” said Andy, “God’s an Australian.”

More later in this piece about drowning and why 83% of victims are males (and 8.83% are overseas visitors). Andy was rescued from the surf and, under protest, taken to a hospital for observation. The local newspaper reported “Irish tourist saved from rip.” If only they knew.
So we savoured that concert, where the humble 74-year-old singer-songwriter and campaigner for social justice took us through a mixed set, including the famous My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland, A Blacksmith Courted Me and a complex story-song about Harry Houdini.
After chatting to fans and posing for photos, Andy and his wife Kumiko loaded up their Landcruiser with his bouzoukis and octave mandolin and set off for Sydney. At an age when many of his generation are playing lawn bowls, going on South Pacific cruises or pushing up daisies, he sets a cracking pace. In late November, he wrote on Facebook about having finished a marathon tour of the UK and Germany – 43 gigs in 59 days, wryly saying he needed a day off.
In December, he headed to Australia, teaming up with young Tasmanian musician Luke Plumb, who is back living in Australia after a decade playing with Scottish folk-rock band Shooglenifty.
The duo featured at Woodford Festival, after which Plumb went home to Tassie where he reunited last weekend with Irvine at the Cygnet Festival. Irvine and Plumb have two more festival bookings (Illawarra and Newstead) with concerts in between.

January, the month of drownings

Some of you might be still saying “Andy Who?” even though some of his May gigs in Ireland are already booked out. He’s as popular as ever among Irish music fans. There’s always rumours of another Planxty Reunion (with former members Donal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn and Christy Moore), last heard together in 2004.

And we owe it all, apparently, to a couple of bronzed Aussie surfers, standing up to their thighs on a rock shelf, willing an exhausted Andy Irvine to paddle his way towards them.

All Australians should be able to swim. It is a necessity in a continent with a 19,320 km coastline. But, whether they could swim or not, 280 Australians drowned in 2015/2016, 83% of them males. They drowned in the surf; they drowned in rivers, creeks, lakes and waterholes. Some were swept off rocks while fishing, some were tipped out of boats, but most were drowned while swimming at beaches.

We all know it is foolhardy to swim outside the flags or worse, at an unpatrolled beach. Many of us have had our brush with death via rips or other misadventures, as happened to me one time in the 1960s.
Clowning around in the east coast surf with my teenage mates I was suddenly dragged out of my depth, a powerful current towing me out to sea. I remembered from a physical education lesson, if finding yourself in trouble; raise your arm as high as you can. So I did and lucky for me that Dave, a member of the school swimming team, was further out than me and grabbed my arm as I swept by.
“What you doin’ out here?” he said, tucking his arms under my armpits and swimming backwards down shore where we emerged tired but happy.
Go on, you all have stories like that. Things you never told your mothers.

Your penance, should you choose to do it, is to download the Royal Life Saving Drowning Report 2016, from which these facts emerge.

Even if you skim through it, you’ll be all over your teenage kids like sand rash. The statistics which chill are as follows:
Drownings: 280
Men: 83% Women: 17%
Average age: 43.1
Age groups with most drownings:
25-34 (19%); 35-44 (15%);
Unhappily, drownings in the aforementioned age groups are increasing against the 10-year average, by 27% and 11% respectively.
The positive news in this sobering, 32-page report is that education programs are working on youngsters and their parents. Drowning deaths are down 30% in the 0-4 years group and 38% in the 5-9 age group.
There were 14 drowning deaths among the young (5 to 17) in 2015-2016, with a somewhat telling increase to 23 deaths in the 18-24 age group.

If I may editorialise, the latter can be largely explained away in the song by Rage Against the Machine− “F**** you I won’t do what you tell me.” Youngsters love to rebel and one clear way to give the metaphorical finger to your folks is to go swimming at an unpatrolled beach.

The Australian Water Safety Strategy has some ambitious targets, the key one being to reduce drowning deaths 50% by 2020.
This includes targeting “key drowning challenges” which are: boating, watercraft and recreational activities, alcohol and drugs, high-risk populations and extreme weather.
Royal Life Saving found that 44 people died with positive alcohol readings in their blood stream. More than half were above the legal limit in most Australian states and territories (0.05mg/l). Of those, 40% recorded a blood alcohol reading four times the limit or higher. Similar figures were quoted around people with cannabis or methamphetamine in their blood.

Who me, swim?

I’d like to say I can swim, after braving adult learn to swim classes in the 1990s. If you threw me in the deep end of a pool I’d paddle my way to the shallow end. But these days, if I were swept off my feet in angry surf, in future you’d be re-reading some of the early FOMMs and saying “Such a shame about Bob”.
If you’d wondered, I’m writing this not because it’s Friday the 13th, but because January is the month when most drownings occur (40 deaths last year). This is the main holiday time for families with young children and inevitably they head for Australia’s beaches. They need to be vigilant.

Some closing words, then, from Andy Irvine, ABC regional radio, circa 2003. He’s set to play his song, “My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland,” about the days in his first band, Sweeney’s Men.

“I’ve reached an age of looking back nostalgically at my past,” he told ABC South West Victoria Radio’s Steve Martin. “I nearly drowned in New South Wales about ten years ago and I wrote that in hospital. I was recovering from my near-drowning experience.”

‘Irish tourist’ indeed.

YouTube: My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland (with Donal Lunny)

Risks of Olympic proportions

pole -vaulter-william-pacheco William Pacheco/creative commons

So we’re watching the re-run of the World’s Fastest Man beating the World’s Second Fastest Man in the 100 metre Olympic dash. My heart goes out to the also-rans. Trayvon Bromell of the US, despite coming last in a field of eight, covered the 100m final in 10.05 seconds. Goodness me, I thought. It takes me one minute and 21 seconds to drag the wheelie bin 97m from the car port to the roadside (admittedly uphill), huffing like an old grampus (old Scots saying thought to mean ‘like a fat fish out of water’).

Make no mistake, people, you need to be in peak condition if you want to complete at the Olympic level. She Who Swears at the Remotes was channel surfing, realising that the various iterations of Channel 7 are showing different Olympic events at the same time. Flick flick, she went. Some Australian guy, apparently swimming in the open sea, had opened up a one minute lead on the rest of the pack. It was heartening to see all the support vessels hovering nearby in case of cramp, loss of will to keep going, cossie-loss, shark attack, remnant arctic ice or other. Flick, flick.

Oh, there’s blokes spearing through the water in kayaks, or maybe they are canoes? Foresooth, here are two women spearing through the water in a kayak/canoe.

“Look at their shoulder muscles,” I marvelled, adjusting the heat pack on my compromised AC joint.

Now we’re on to pole vaulting, a sport we take a mild interest in because we know someone who competed in this event at Commonwealth Games level.

“Crikey, there’s so many ways of killing yourself associated with this sport,” She observed. I googled “pole vault accidents”.

Some YouTube contributors delight in posting clips of athletes failing or hurting themselves, including an incident at the Rio Olympics where a Japanese competitor’s penis dislodged the crossbar. This is akin to funniest home videos, a program with which I am not amused. Pole vaulters have died competing in this sport, or have ended up in wheelchairs. So the supposedly funny/shocking videos are insensitive to say the least.

According to Chris Hord, assistant pole vault coach at the University of North Florida, pole vaulting is the deadliest track and field event.

The sport is inherently dangerous because you run at full speed, almost 100-metre sprint with a 15- to 17-foot fibreglass pole in your hand, then you’re bending it, trying to get upside down to clear a bar in the air.”

Sunshine Coast physiotherapist and former Commonwealth Games pole vault competitor Andrew Stewart agrees.

“The worst part is if you accidently land on the tip of the pole, it will bend and throw you anywhere.”

Stewart competed from 1970 to 1984, culminating with a 5th in the 1984 Commonwealth Games event in Brisbane. His own experiences of pole vaulting as a dangerous sport included breaking a leg and spraining both ankles, in the days when landing pads were much smaller.

This 2012 study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine makes for sobering reading.

A few weeks back our choir director Kim Kirkman was encouraging the tenors to reach a high B by pretending we were throwing the discus. That took me back to compulsory school sports days where we were taught to throw javelins or discus by over-zealous sports teachers whose mission in life was apparently to distract boys (and maybe girls too) from thinking too much about the onset of puberty. Now that I think on it, perhaps all that javelin and discus tossing is to blame for my problematic shoulder joint, which responds to steroid injections and physiotherapy but the pain returns when I fall back into bad habits (like not doing the archery exercise, hunching over the keyboard like a man possessed).

But getting back to the men’s 100 metre sprint and other such events, the victors feeling obliged to do a victory lap wearing their nation’s flag like a cape. Mr Bolt, a man much-used to the attention of the media, struck a few poses, the images carried around the globe in an instant. Our journalists salivated over the Jamaican champ’s promise to return to Australia (he was last here in 2012).

Media sports coverage, such as it is

Just so you know, journalists work with some limitations when it comes to reporting on the Olympics. To actually attend as a media correspondent you need accreditation. The accrediting body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has a fair bit of muscle.

For example, they banned the use of animated GIFs during the Olympics. GIFs are short animated videos on loop which often pop up on social media. They are more often visual gags designed to shock or amuse, but oft-times capture immortal moments of triumph.

As Business Insider reported, it appears the Olympic ban is not being observed in certain segments of the social media with many GIFs to be found on tumblr and twitter.

A GIF which appeared, if I’m correct, before the IOC ban was announced, depicted a beggar lad alone in Rio’s slums overlooking a blazingly lit Olympic stadium and fireworks display. It briefly touched a nerve before being subsumed by the weight of status updates on Facebook.

The other media curiosity revealed at the Rio Olympics was the Washington Post’s use of robotic reporting technology. The Poynter Institute reported that Heliograf, using data and language templates, churns out medal tallies, event schedules and even results, the automated news briefs forming part of the Post’s Olympic blog.

FOMM reader Ms Hand alerted us to this under-reported technology breakthrough. We’re not surprised. Speech-to-text technology has existed for quite some time, of benefit to vision-impaired writers, scribes with temporary or permanent RSI or lawyers who can no longer afford secretaries to transcribe their daily dictation.

For all you know I could be talking aloud and one of those smart programmes is writing down what I say. Isn’t that right, Siri?

As a former newspaper scribe, I have mixed feelings about machines taking over what was once the detail work of junior journalists. Attending to sports results, racing form, TV guides and the like was the cadet journalist’s way to learning about deadlines, accuracy, punctuation and the consequences of making mistakes.

Meanwhile, back at the pole-vaulting pit, it takes skilful human beings to track down the vitally important Olympic stories like the Japanese pole vaulter who failed to qualify because his penis touched the bar. News Ltd scribe Dan Felson’s breathless, euphemism-laden piece (‘let down by his trouser-friend’) went global. Read it if you must.

Despite its ever-present risks of injury or injured pride, pole vaulting continues to attract devotees.

Sydney man Albert Gay, 73, set an Australian record this year at the Australian Masters Athletics event. The Macarthur Chronicle reported that Gay ‘leapt into the record books’ for his age group with a 3m attempt (the Olympic world record is 6.03 metres, set this week by Brazilian Thiago Braz Da Silva).

Gay said he took up athletics and pole vaulting when he retired, at 62.

“It tests your bravery,” he said. “You’ve got to be a little bit of an idiot to do it.”

SWSR adds: “I prefer to confine myself to channel surfing from the comfort of the recliner, where the only danger to be faced is the possibility of the Staffie unexpectedly launching himself into my lap.”