On 19 October this year, the International Maritime Rescue Federation, a body dedicated to uniting and recognising search and rescue organisations around the globe, chose the NSRI’s Survival Swimming Centre to receive first place in the Innovation & Technology category of its annual awards.
A swimming pool in a container? The idea might seem far-fetched, impossible really. But when you’re sitting around a table with members of NSRI’s Drowning Prevention (DP) team, anything is possible.
Towards the end of 2017, the NSRI launched its Survival Swimming programme. Survival swimming is not about learning to swim; it’s about knowing what to do if you land in the water. The skills learnt include orientation, floating, and holding your breath underwater – all geared towards feeling comfortable in the water and not panicking – and then being able to move to a place of safety where you can get out of the water.
The initiative was rolled out at public swimming pools where the management of those pools was willing to participate in what is essentially a public service programme. But the DP team recognised that in many areas of South Africa, the availability of public swimming pools is rare or non-existent, and if they do exist, they have not been maintained properly, due to various reasons including the many draughts that have plagued large regions of South Africa.
Taking the pool to the people
The issue of safe swimming areas for children to learn survival swimming skills came up again and again, and then the DP team had a lightbulb moment. Converted shipping containers. These 12m containers would be large enough to house a 6m pool, with space to spare for a change room and office for the instructor, but most importantly, they’re portable. They could literally take the pool to the people who needed to learn the skills the most – rural communities where there is no pool in sight, and where children often play in dams, rivers and at the beach.
From that lightbulb moment in 2021, NSRI’s Drowning Prevention Manager Andrew Ingram began planning, plotting and researching. The concept itself is brilliant, but constructing a container swimming pool is a process of many moving parts. The water must be deep enough, warm enough and always clean and filtered. Once designed, and with sponsors onboard, construction of the first Survival Swimming Container (SSC) began. Despite these challenges, it took just four months before the final product was proudly delivered to Meiring Primary School in the Western Cape.
On 26 August 2022, SSC2 was delivered to Noah-Christian Academy in Tombo, 19km from Port St Johns. Andrew recalls how the school’s band came out to greet the big Dibana truck and its precious cargo, marching in front of it to the beat of a single drum. “It was a festive moment, and the children pushed up against the school fence to get a good look at the pool that was being delivered to them,” he smiles.
Lessons started on 1 September. Four excited learners were greeted by instructor Mlungisi Ndamase and after their first lesson, the children ran off to share the experience with their school friends. Then four teachers had their lesson. Andrew recalls Mlungisi had to gently persuade two of them that it was okay to get into the water. “It was great to see him introduce them to the basics of holding their breath and opening their eyes in the water, and how proud the teachers were once they were able to do so.” A few high-fives followed!
Spending the week in Port St Johns was an eye-opening event for the DP team. Andrew met a teacher who had lost her 11-year-old son to drowning. She shared her story with them, as well as her desire to learn the skills so that she could share these with her surviving sons.
SSC3 for KwaZulu-Natal
SSC3 will go to Duduzile Senior Secondary school situated about half an hour inland of Port Shepstone on the KZN South Coast. “Our KZN South Coast DP instructor, Nkazimulo Nyawoze, has been visiting the school, and teaching water safety for some time now and the headmistress has completely bought into the water safety and survival swimming lessons.”
This centre is the first earmarked for a high school, and Andrew is confident the team will learn a lot during its deployment. “There are a number of other schools in the area including primary schools, so there will be no shortage of children to teach how to survive in water.”
As with the centre at Port St Johns and Riebeeck Kasteel , the idea is that the containers stay where they are placed so that as many learners and adults benefit from the lessons for as long as possible.
“Construction of SSC3 is steaming along and after all the necessary tests, we are planning on deploying it to the South Coast in mid-January 2023.”
Of the IMRF win, Andrew says: “It was an amazing feeling to hear that we won! A real feather in the cap of the DP department. Our first IMRF award was a win in the Team Category for our water safety lessons in classrooms, then we won Innovation &
Technology for the Pink Rescue Buoys, and now for the SSCs. And that is not taking into account the Operations Department that has won for the JetRib and the Plettenberg Bay rescue stretcher.
“Not bad for tiny little departments on the southern tip of Africa. When you consider the rescue organisations that we are up against, and the enormous budgets they have, it really is a remarkable achievement.”
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