Preventing drownings is of utmost importance to the search and rescue (SAR) members at the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) in South Africa. Only 15% of South Africans can swim, so learning should be prioritised as an essential skill for all South Africans - especially children. According to the NSRI, South Africa has on average of 1,450 fatal drownings each year, of which 450 are children.

Andrew Ingram, Drowning Prevention Manager at NSRI says: “This places extraordinary pressure on families, communities, and SAR resources. Responding to drowning-in-progress calls and often having to search for and recover bodies – especially children – is hugely traumatic for SAR teams. By teaching children and adults to swim, we are creating a culture of swimming in communities that did not have it, thus reducing the number of fatal drownings, the number of SAR responses, and the mental stress to our SAR teams.”

There are few places in South Africa where children can have free swimming lessons. And in schools, swimming lessons are mostly not available. Not only are there no teachers who can teach swimming, but there are very few operational municipal swimming pools – especially in rural settings.

Credit: NSRI

Over the last two years, NSRI has concentrated on rolling out free survival swimming lessons. These venues are sustainable by hiring locals, teaching them our methods of teaching Survival Swimming, and providing continual management and support. But this relies on safe water or municipal pools being available. We needed to develop an idea that would allow us to teach children how to swim in remote settings when there is no safe water or municipal pools available.

This prompted the NSRI to take action, which led to the development and implementation of its ground-breaking Survival Swimming Centres (SSC), which won the IMRF’s Innovation and Technology award in October 2022. 

The idea for these centres came from addressing the issue of providing safe shelter to lifeguards on relatively remote beaches. Andrew talked about how these live-saving swimming centres came to be.

“We converted six-metre shipping containers into comfortable offices that could also store equipment safely. When looking at how we could provide a safe swimming space for children, we chose a 12-metre shipping container and built a six-metre swimming pool at the back and office space with a changeroom in the front. This providing a safe space for children to learn to swim in (which could be securely locked after hours) and an office for instructors.

“One of the main advantages of these centres is that they are easy to move from one place to another so we can reach children all over South Africa,” he adds.

“These centres combat two critical issues: offering children access to safe swimming facilities, which many communities do not have, and offering the lessons at no cost means there is no financial barrier,” adds Andrew.

Fundamentals being taught include how to hold your breath underwater, open your eyes underwater, and float and propel at least five metres in the water.

Safety and control are two advantages of teaching children to swim at these centres. The SSC can easily be locked up after hours, preventing access and possible drownings. The pool is shallow at one-metre depth, allowing young children to stand while still deep enough to swim in easily.

Andrew adds: “We have installed sophisticated monitoring equipment to continuously see the oxidation-reduction potential (ORP), pH level, water temperature and level, and humidity. A security camera system also allows us to monitor lessons remotely.”

Credit: NSRI

This initiative has received incredible support from the wider swimming pool industry. The purpose-designed swimming centre and top-of-the-range filtration and circulation systems were entirely donated. By using solar power where there is no electricity, communities that previously had little chance of having a swimming pool to learn to swim in now have the possibility.

“We are constantly improving our work and how we do it. We are approached by people who love the idea of the project and want to help by donating expertise or equipment. We are building a third swimming centre and each time we have improved on what has gone before.”

The team that works on this project is really proud of what they have achieved. Attending a lesson where a child learns to float for the first time is an incredibly special moment and motivates the team to do more.