Family

Mum's life-saving lesson: why water safety is so important for kids

Watching her four-year-old daughter Olivia plunge into the water after their yacht capsized was a terrifying moment for this Auckland mum.

Gemma Miles' heart leapt into her throat as she watched the yacht, on which her four-year-old daughter Olivia stood, capsize.

"She had begged to go out on the boat," Gemma (41) recalls of the incident last summer in north Auckland. "To me, there was no immediate danger. She had a life jacket on, was close to shore and the person she was sailing with was a family friend who was very competent – what's the worst that could happen?"

Suddenly a gust of wind came out of nowhere and the mum-of-two panicked as she saw "the boat capsize in slow motion".

"I saw Oli go in and I could tell as soon as she hit the water that she was shocked," Gemma says. "But she didn't inhale any water, she closed her eyes and as soon as she went under water, she kicked."

Once the boat was righted and the adult had hold of Olivia, Gemma went out to grab her daughter, who was shaking and cold, on a paddle board.

"On the way home, I spoke to her about it and I told her, 'That was pretty cool what you did out there.' And she said, 'I closed my eyes and I kicked, Mummy, I kicked. I'm sure there was a shark so I had to kick away from it,'"

Gemma recounts, laughing. "She has a wild imagination!"

The relief that washed over Gemma after witnessing her daughter's capability in the crisis is something she won't forget.

She says the reason Olivia (5) knew what to do is because Gemma and her husband Chris have had their daughters Olivia and Thea (7) in swimming lessons since they were six months old. Water safety, Gemma explains, is paramount in their family.

"Every single week they have swimming lessons," she says.

"My husband and I met on superyachts, so we met on the water. I'm from the countryside in England where there's not a lot of water, but my mum put me in intensive swimming lessons as a kid. And after working on boats for so long, I always wanted my children to be confident in water."

And, of course, living by the beach and surrounded by water in Auckland, Gemma says she wanted her children to grow up never fearing the water, but respecting it.

"I want them to be comfortable but that they are also wary that things could go wrong and know what to do in those situations," she says.

With drowning statistics featuring little ones tragically losing their lives in the water every year – in 2016, six children under 14 drowned and 42 under-fives were hospitalised in non-fatal incidents – Gemma says the skills that leave our youngest susceptible to drowning can be taught from very early on.

"At the end of the day, I'm a mum – I'm not a lifeguard or a safety officer – but this is the best way I can prepare my kids."

Water safety tips for young children