Safety in numbers: Rebecca (left) and Greg Foot-Connolly with Elise, Caitlin and Daniel.
When Rebecca Foot-Connolly was a child, she almost drowned. “I was saved at Elwood Beach,” she recalls. “I was taken out with an undertow.” The frightening experience never left the Parkdale mother of three, who was a lifesaving Nipper at the time.
Ironically, she was a good swimmer. Growing up in Springvale, the family holidayed at her grandfather’s beach property at Cape Woolamai on Phillip Island. “I finished when I was 15 or 16,” Rebecca says of her time with the Nippers. “I won an award in my last year.”
The near-drowning taught her that no matter how good a swimmer you are, or think you are, the sea can be dangerous and commands respect – even in Port Phillip Bay, which is not generally known for treacherous conditions.
Rebecca’s love of swimming is shared by husband Greg, who she met as a fellow St John Ambulance volunteer. “Our courtship was boogie boarding and camping,” she says in their comfortable and relaxed family home, a stone’s throw from Mentone Beach.
They also share a name after combining surnames when they married; she was Foot, he was Connolly. “It was his suggestion,” Rebecca says. “He said marriage is a partnership and you shouldn’t have to give up yours and I’m not giving up mine. How about we hyphenate?”
This practical teamwork has continued while raising their own water babies. Most weekends over summer at their local beach, you’ll find a Foot-Connolly patrolling. Occasionally you’ll also find their King Charles cavaliers Millie and Bella enjoying a day out.
Rebecca, who works in the health sector, Greg, an oil-industry professional, and children Daniel, 20, Elise, 19, and Caitlin, 14, have been members of Mentone Life Saving Club since Caitlin was a baby, starting as Nippers, like their mother. Father and children are also qualified lifesavers.
Caitlin, who is about to start year 9 at Star of the Sea College in Brighton, this year won the Victorian Champion Junior Lifesaver of the Year award and attended a youth leadership camp as a result. All three siblings have won awards at club level and state lifesaving events. Daniel also plays football and the girls play netball.
Melbourne is not noted for its suburban sands like Sydney, famous for steep cliffs, the harbour and TV shows such as Bondi Rescue. But the local beaches have their charms; Tom Roberts and Charles Conder once painted the bare and eroding Mentone bluffs, which have since been stabilised and vegetated.
They also have their dangers, such as choppy water and tricky currents that can trap swimmers who underestimate the usually calm bay, such as migrants who may lack water safety knowledge and awareness.
Life Saving Victoria has found that people from multicultural groups have historically accounted for about 20 per cent of all Victorian drownings. It works closely with a range of multicultural groups to increase their awareness of water and beach safety, through a range of education programs including beach programs and swimming lessons.
Mentone Beach is relatively safe due to generally shallow bars, but it has small currents and troughs. Popular with families from all over Melbourne, it sits at one end of Warrigal Road, backed by Beach Road and 20-metre-high bluffs.
The Foot-Connollys say the most important message for all beachgoers is to swim between the flags, where you will always have a set of eyes watching. Anyone who finds themselves in trouble should raise their arm straight up in the air and hold it still, to avoid giving the impression they are waving.
Greg says if someone does hit difficulty offshore, they have usually underestimated the wind and currents. “If people get into that area, suddenly you’re heading towards Frankston at a very fast rate,” he says.
There are also the odd shark and stingray sightings. “We get the little ones (stingrays) that are just buried in the sand,” says Elise, who is studying zoology and marine biology at Monash University and hopes to volunteer with a turtle conservation program in Indonesia and an elephant refuge in Thailand. “People will stand on them.”
While few people struggle in the water at Mentone, Caitlin is constantly amazed at the number of adults still exposing themselves to harmful UV rays for hours on end. “You do say ‘You should wear sunscreen’,” she says, but this often falls on deaf ears.
Like they did, the Foot-Connollys say all families should send their children to swimming lessons from a young age. It is the best way, they say, to prevent swimming tragedies.
Water safety is outlined in the Victorian Education Department’s essential learning standards, but it is up to individual schools how they incorporate it. Some use the VICSWIM program, others hire swimming instructors, use YMCA swim programs or have their own qualified swimming teachers.
As a part-time swimming teacher, Daniel, who is studying environmental horticulture at Melbourne University, says a one or two-week block of lessons each year is not enough to develop adequate skills and water awareness. “It will raise awareness but it won’t make a real difference,” he says.
Summer water safety
Always swim at a beach patrolled by lifesavers and always swim between the flags.
Read signs posted at beaches for warnings about hazards such as rips and sudden drops.
Never swim alone – watch out for your mates and always make sure someone is looking out for you in the water.
Know your water signals, such as a fist up in the air for a swimmer in trouble.
Children must be actively supervised around water – not just the occasional glance. Under fives should be within arm’s reach at all times.
Everyone should learn swimming and water-safety skills – these essential skills could save your life.
For more water safety information visit www.watersafety.vic.gov.au
2010-11 Patrol statistics \ Volunteer Lifesaver & Paid Lifeguard
2,202,071 beach visitations
57,527 preventative actions
1677 minor first aid
129 major first aid