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How to keep tragedy from striking our beaches again

Last Friday, more than a dozen students and graduates of a junior high school in Tamsui, also spelt Danshui, in New Taipei City went to Shalun Beach, which has been closed to the public since 1999, for a dip in the sea. They started their sea-bathing at 11 a.m. and a south wind began to blow at noon. They didn't know that when the south wind blows, the undercurrents are so strong that surface waves can beguile them into overestimating the ease with which they can make it ashore. Having swam too far from shore, eight of the students were trapped by the undercurrents. Four of them drowned and the other four were saved.

Shalun Beach, opened as Saron Sea-Bathing Resort during the Japanese colonial era at the northern part of Tamsui River, is a dangerous place when the south wind blows. Those junior high students were not warned against swimming during the ebb tide when the undercurrents can easily trap them and carry them farther away from shore.

On a summer Sunday in 1947, scores of swimmers were trapped in the strong undercurrents, with seven of them drowning. There were no lifeguards on duty. All of those who drowned were good swimmers “enjoying” their Sunday outing at Shalun. Those trapped in the shallows could be easily helped back to their feet, but those good swimmers ventured too far from shore to make it back to the shallows. As a matter of fact, they simply couldn't swim back without help against the strong undercurrents, and drowned from exhaustion.

On receiving calls for help, the fire brigade mobilized close to 150 personnel and volunteers to search for the four students first reported missing. One of them, a recent graduate and good swimmer, was found ashore and pronounced dead on arrival at a hospital on Friday. The other three were all found dead on Saturday.

The beach is one of 179 dangerous areas for swimming in the municipality. New Taipei City Deputy Mayor Hou You-yi said the beach was closed 13 years ago because of strong undercurrents in the ebb tide and the poor quality of seawater, contaminated with heavy metals and a high concentration of E. coli bacteria. Hou said the responsibility for patrolling the area 500 meters from shore belongs to the National Coast Guard Administration, and said he has requested the Coast Guardsmen to strengthen their patrols. So far as the municipal government is concerned, he said, the only thing that can be done is to put up more signs at Shalun to warn against swimming. The sign reads: “No punishment for playing in the water, but certain punishment for swimming.” That, of course, is ambiguous. The difference between “playing in the water” and “swimming” isn't clear, and few if any swimmers will take heed.

To make matters worse, the strengthening of Coast Guard patrols won't do any good to prevent drowning accidents, either. All the National Coast Guard Administration can do is to lengthen the period of patrol from the current 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. period to a 10-hour stint from 8 a.m. through 6 p.m. Swimmers may start to take a dip long before 6 in the morning and long after 6 in the evening. That means there won't be anybody keeping an eye on the beach except for the 10 hours every summer day.

Summer days are long. People can enjoy “playing in the water” long after 6 p.m. Practically the only thing the municipal authorities can do to preclude drowning accidents is to get all swimming teachers to make their students never forget that they shouldn't swim in unfamiliar waters and swim only with life guards present. Swimming pools are a much safer place to swim in. Avoid swimming in rivers, lakes or seas where there may be dangerous undercurrents, eddies and other hazards.

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