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Near-miss with yacht off Kitsilano Beach has ocean swimmers pleading for better safety measures

One of only two buoys marking the Kitsilano Beach swimming zone can be seen to the left of the sailboat. Swimmers say more are needed to keep motorized boats out of the swimming areas. (CBC - image credit)
One of only two buoys marking the Kitsilano Beach swimming zone can be seen to the left of the sailboat. Swimmers say more are needed to keep motorized boats out of the swimming areas. (CBC - image credit)

When Jess Abells started ocean swimming off Vancouver beaches 10 years ago, she quickly learned that you have to keep your guard up — even in the zones reserved for swimmers.

That was the case on Wednesday when a yacht chugged straight into the swimming zone at Kitsilano Beach, coming uncomfortably close to a group of five people swimming with their heads down.

"I mean, if the boat had decided to get going, there's no outrunning a motorboat as a swimmer," said Abells.

"Luckily it was going fairly slowly. But when you're swimming, any motorized vehicle where it's not supposed to be is very distressing and scary."

Abells wasn't in the water herself but witnessed the near-miss. She yelled at the yacht to leave while the swimmers changed course to give it a wide berth.

Andrea McCallum, past president of the Vancouver Open Water Swimming Association, said it's the kind of incident that's happening more and more because of the lack of white swimming-zone buoys in the ocean marking no-go areas for boaters.

submitted by Andrea McCallum
submitted by Andrea McCallum

"It's disturbing because someone is going to get injured eventually," said McCallum.

"There's been an increase in motorized boats coming into swimmer areas because the white markers are missing — there's not enough, they've drifted away or been stolen or taken out — and it's become a hazard for swimmers."

McCallum said the vast swimming area off the half-kilometre-long Kitsilano Beach is demarcated by just two white vertical buoys, when there used to be six or seven. And the situation isn't much better at the other city beaches, she said.

"It's getting really dangerous, which is quite sad because we're so lucky here on the coast in Vancouver to be able to swim in the ocean all year long," she said.

Ocean no man's land

In an emailed statement, the Vancouver Park Board said the buoys are put in place as a kind of courtesy, but exist outside of its jurisdiction.

"Essentially these buoys, which we maintain and place, are there to try to help educate swimmers and boaters that there could be conflicts. This area is not enforced by any level of government, and there are no regulations preventing boaters from entering this area," said the statement.

"To be clear, neither the VPD [Vancouver Police Department] or Coast Guard have any ability to prevent boaters from entering this area. What can be enforced by these bodies is dangerous or intoxicated driving in these areas."

According to Transport Canada, Vancouver or any level of government could apply for swimming zones to become no-boat areas, but getting the designation isn't simple.

"The process for creating a restriction has several documentation requirements such as public consultation and identification that enforcement of the restriction is available. Once a [boat] restriction is approved, local authorities are responsible for ensuring that restrictions are marked, properly maintained and enforced," said a statement from Transport Canada.

Not only is ocean swimming growing in popularity, but climate change is also leading to an increasing number of hot days and a consequent growing need for places to get relief from the heat, like the ocean.

Lack of outdoor pools

Adding to the issue is Vancouver's lack of outdoor pools.

At one time there were nine for swimming but now there are only three, including Kitsilano Pool, which won't open this long weekend as scheduled because it needs repairs.

McCallum said it all makes the demand for safe swimming spaces even more urgent.

"Vancouver can't drop the ball on this. Swimming is really important and people need somewhere to go to cool off," she said.

In the statement, the park board said boaters need to be on the watch for swimmers.

"We also ask boaters to recognize this caution zone between the flagged beach areas and the buoys and to be aware that there are more swimmers in the open waters especially as the weather heats up," it said.