Drowning doesn't look like drowning


The kind of drowning you see on T.V.—think thrashy, screamy—doesn't have much in common with what real drowning looks like, according to writer and Navy/Coast Guard veteran Mario Vittone. That's because of something called the Instinctive Drowning Response, a pattern of behavior that appears to be hard-wired into humans and pops up whenever somebody feels like they're suffocating in water.

Frank Pia, Ph.D., the psychologist and lifeguard to first described the Instinctive Drowning Response explains it this way:

  1. 1. Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing. Speech is the secondary or overlaid function. Breathing must be fulfilled, before speech occurs.

  2. 2. Drowning people's mouths alternately sink below and reappear above the surface of the water. The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out for help. When the drowning people's mouths are above the surface, they exhale and inhale quickly as their mouths start to sink below the surface of the water.

  3. 3. Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water's surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water, permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.

  4. 4. Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. Physiologically, drowning people who are struggling on the surface of the water cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment.

  5. 5. From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response people's bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. Unless rescued by a trained lifeguard, these drowning people can only struggle on the surface of the water from 20 to 60 seconds before submersion occurs.

In real life, a drowning person will be a lot more still and silent than you expect.

Image courtesy Flickr user jopoe, via CC


  1. having rescued someone who was drowning, i can attest that there was no sign of struggle. they simply slipped under and didn’t come up until i pulled them to the surface.

    i wondered about this lack of inactivity on the part of the victim for years, until i was faced with drowning myself. having treaded water to the point of exhaustion, i felt myself slip under the water, even as my rescue boat approached. i was so physically exhausted i couldn’t even raise my arms let alone shout for help.

    1. having rescued someone who was drowning, i can attest that there was no sign of struggle. they simply slipped under and didn’t come up until i pulled them to the surface.

      Good for you and congratulations on making it all the way to Mount Doom.

  2. as a person who drowned at a young-ish age (and remember the hazy details), these sound right. i can remember bobbing along under the surface of the pool, near the level of the pool light, until somebody pulled me up.

  3. Seems true to my experience too – I almost drowned once as a little kid, and can remember trying with all my might to say “help” and get my mother’s attention… it was almost impossible to manage a grunt, I couldn’t even make a splash or anything but eventually she noticed and pulled me out. Nice lady.

  4. This is precisely why lifeguarding methods like Red Cross and Ellis and Assoc. use a “scanning” procedure to cover the guards’ zones completely multiple times per minute, and why well-run pools cycle their guards regularly (every 15-30min). Paying that much attention to your zone is tiring, and inattention for even half a minute can kill someone. Ten years guarding at municipal pools in Austin taught me exactly what Dr. Pia and commenter millrick describe: one second the victim is on the surface, then their eyes go big in surprise/embarrassment, then they go under without a peep. It happens VERY fast. In in-service training, the guard playing the “victim” roll in practice rescues, when they were new, would thrash about, and when they were more experienced, would just stop swimming and sink. New guards get very freaked out.

  5. I can’t attest to a real rescue situation but this is definitely something that was drilled into me in my waterfront lifeguard training (happy to never have had to use it). The other thing that is not obvious is how incredibly hard it is to haul a passive person in. We did some simulations with people play acting in a relatively cold lake with moderate wind chop… I was exhausted and that is when I was a collegiate rower who trained daily. Now that I am Old And Fat I am sure I would make myself the second drowning victim if I tried to rescue someone.

    1. Don’t discredit yourself because you are older or heavier than you once were. You did simulations, so you knew that it wasn’t real and no one was in true danger. In the event that you would have to pull a person who was truly drowning (and at risk of dying) out of the water these days, I’m sure you could manage it. Adrenaline kicks in and you can pretty much do anything. You might be sleeping for a LONG time afterward (because adrenaline depletes your body of most of its energy and it takes a while to restore that). But I have no doubt that you could save someone if you had to.

      1. I think both (this particular) Anon and Enoch are right.

        I also trained in lifesaving when young and spry. Excellent instructors: the training has never gone away. Every time I’m in the water, it’s foremost in my mind.

        Now I have children and they have friends, so I’ve had to deal with panicked semi-drowning humans on a regular basis. My middle aged body finds it A LOT harder to handle even a small child who is panicking than any of the adult “victims” I trained on.

        So yes, I think it’s true that adrenaline would kick in if needed, but Enoch is right to not assume s/he would be as capable now as 20 or 30 years ago. That’s just reality.

  6. thanks for the tip on this. there are many times accidents are occurring, or have occurred, and the gravity of the situation still seems hidden to where i almost don’t respond, so i am trying to make myself more engaged. now i have one more to add to the watch list of things not to take too casually, or to rely on the group perception.

  7. Is the detatched, clinical tone of this account more chilling than a more dramatic account for anyone else? Cause it’s freaking me the fuck out.

    1. Totally agree.

      Btw, I hope this makes parents with young children that are thinking of putting a pool in their back yards think twice – too many tragedies that were not noticed until too late.

    2. And well it should, #10. It’s a freaky process. Speaking as a parent and a former lifeguard… it’s damn scary either way.

  8. The most terrifying depiction of drowning I’ve ever seen on film comes from Lars Von Trier’s Europa. I wonder how realistic it is; possibly very. Available on Netflix streaming: do check this movie out.

  9. From the posting: “The respiratory system was designed for breathing”.

    No. It wasn’t designed for anything. Perhaps it was *selected* for breathing capability, but that’s not the same thing.

    1. It’s funny to me that someone would actually pull out that one sentence and decide that it was offensive in any way. It was a poor choice of words, I suppose, but wouldn’t ‘selected’ be offensive to an even larger audience?

  10. Makes me wonder if the often-used description of drowning people struggling and endangering their rescuers in the process is accurate.

    1. Jackasimov: I rescued a friend who was panicing in lake tahoe. He couldn’t swim at all, but was wearing a lifejacket. As soon as we got off the boat and into the water, he started to freak out, and started to grab onto me, pushing me under. The best way I can describe it was that he was trying to climb onto my shoulders. Not a good situation for me.

      He basically didn’t listen to a word I was saying, even though I gave him very clear instructions (effectively, “do not touch me, I will drag you back to the boat”). So, I pushed him away, hoping that the lifejacket would keep him afloat.

      When I looked around, the boat was drifting away, maybe 40 feet by now. I figured if I couldnt get the boat back, we’d both be dead, so I swam for the boat, started it up, and headed back to pick him up. Unfortunately, the sun was reflecting off the water directly where he was, so I had a hard time seeing him. Anyway, I found him, hauled him on board.

      It turns out he hadn’t properly tied his lifejacket. It was nowhere near tight enough, and was riding up, while he was sinking down.

      It was a complete disaster of a day, and I assume total responsibility for it, but learned so many lessons, mainly:

      Don’t encourage someone to go in the water if they can’t swim.

      Tie lifejackets tight, they should be really snug against your body.

      In my situation, my friend wasn’t yet drowning, he was panicing. He may not yet have taken in any water. But he was flailing his arms around, and could definitely had got me in serious trouble.

  11. So the Instinctive Drowning Response that we’ve painstakingly evolved… makes us more likely to drown?

    1. Certainly doesn’t seem designed does it. Evolution is a pretty flawed process. Same thing that seems so silly about your brain being the first thing that shuts down when you lack 02. If you designed a system, wouldn’t you have digestion or a warning, like hearing kick off first and consciousness last?

      All the instinct involved is what makes water-boarding so frightening.

      1. The brain shuts of first purely because of the huge amount of oxygen required to keep everything working. Clearly evolution was more interested in having the brain work optimally for most of a person’s life, and there wasn’t much selection pressure to decrease brain capacity in order to prevent drownings.

  12. “The kind of drowning you see on T.V.—think thrashy, screamy—doesn’t have much in common with what real drowning looks like…”

    The “thrashy, screamy” stuff you’re describing are the characters struggling to prevent themselves from drowning. It’s usually some who can’t swim going overboard or struggling against another character who’s forcing them underwater.

    Surely in real life there is a period where the victim is thrashing about, gulping a bit a water before actual drowning begins, right?

    1. “Surely in real life there is a period where the victim is thrashing about, gulping a bit a water before actual drowning begins, right?”

      Maybe – sometimes – possibly. Well, the gulping of water part happens often – and there can (and often is) visible struggle…but don’t expect waving or an attention grabbing thrash every time.

      Its just as likely that the entire process happens without hands breaking the surface.

  13. This is still drilled into me. I saved a life, my training worked- All I can say is thank you On Behalf of the life I saved.

  14. From their very detailed observations it’s clear that these men have watched a lot of people drown.

  15. Did Maggie inadvertently stumble into some Stevie Smith existential critique? Maybe she should’ve titled the post “not drowning but waving.”

  16. Four days ago I had a personal experience with a near-drowning on a whitewater rafting trip. Just before a a major stretch of rapids, a passenger fell off a raft accompanying the one I was on. At first, everyone was calm, and we all behaved as we’d been instructed. But as it became clear that the situation might prove fatal all the clients — those still in the raft and the woman in the water — quickly lost the ability to follow instructions. It was a powerful demonstration of how fear hijacks your mind, even if you’re not the one doing the drowning. I wrote up the incident on my blog, http://bit.ly/cYGpTJ.

    1. Great write-up, Jeff. And filed under “Recreation” … what some people do for fun!

      Actually I might have a good idea what you’re talking about. I’ve kayaked Numbers a couple times, and ran into trouble in what sounds like the same spot – after Number Five and drifting into Number Six. My buddy was in an open canoe and flipped over then couldn’t roll back up or exit the boat because one of his thigh straps had wrapped around his leg. He was drifting downstream, trapped in an upside-down boat, barely keeping his head above water. Pretty much just in time, I managed to get over to him and present him the back of my boat so he could grab on while I hauled us (and his canoe full of water, still attached!) over to the side. It was a near thing.

      That stretch is great fun … and serious business. Glad everything worked out with your team.

  17. Okay, that was the freakiest damn post I’ve seen here in a long time. No swimming for me on THIS business trip!

  18. If you want a demonstration of this, go to YouTube and start watching the Australian TV show Bondi Rescue, sort of a documentary/reality show about the day to day job the lifeguards do. Quite often, they spot people in trouble who are surrounded by other swimmers – who are completely oblivious.

  19. I remember drowning as very jarring and loud. I suppose physically, to the external observer, I was just sort of distantly bobbling and wobbling and generally failing to stay above the surface of the lake. I think I may have managed one soft little “he–” And then under the water – which had turned into a nightmare, suffocating, void, hostile, opaque – my mind was doing the full “millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror”. Once the first little bit of water got into my lungs, I swear, every level of my consciousness, every secret corner of my mind, every song I ever wrote, ever dream I ever had was dying, feeling itself die, and SCREAMING and SCREAMING and SCREAMING so that there was nothing to be except pure screaming hideous agony.

    Anyway, I proceed with a hope that I’ll avoid ever being waterboarded. I don’t think it would suit me very well. Also, sometimes I think I should learn to swim.

  20. All the more reason why swimming lessons and water survival lessons should be required in schools.

    I remember taking lessons on how to stay afloat if you are exhausted and can’t tread water anymore.

  21. Wow, what a post. I am already having bad dreams. Next you are going to tell me that banannas are not designed to neatly fit in the hand.

  22. We must remember – when something looks designed for its perfections, it’s only the evolutionary process at work showing its astounding beauty. There is no design! When it looks evolved for its imperfections, it is the messiness of evolution at work. In all of this may the glory of evolution be praised.

    1. or it could be a problem with the english language that we don’t do processes like ‘design’ very well. It doesn’t take non-human actors very well and it seems to have a teleological aspect to it that is need not have. It should be possible to talk about the evolutionary process as design in the sense of being fitted to purpose by agents unknown without everyone immediately thinking of intelligent design.

  23. Great to see Mario’s work on BoingBoing and thank you to Maggie for the post. Mario is a treasure of the Coast Guard and we are lucky to have him on active duty. If you’ve seen The Guardian you will get some idea of the kind of work Mario did as a Aviation Survival Technician (Rescue Swimmer).

    In post #14 Anon talks about fitting life jackets – this is absolutely critical for kids. If you can lift your child, or a child you are responsible for, by the shoulders and it goes over their ears they can drown in the life jacket. Get a different one. If the life jacket has a crotch strap please, please, please use it. The crotch strap is the single most important feature of small kids life jackets. As a Coast Guard Auxiliarist I’ve seen lots of poorly fitted life jackets on kids… but I’ve gotten lucky and not seen the downside.

  24. Some of these posts remind me of people who describe the time they were electrocuted when they touched a live wire.

    Rule of thumb: if you’re writing about it, you neither drowned nor were electrocuted.

    1. Dear anon@#37: I respectfully suggest that if you drown to the point of becoming unconscious and sinking to the bottom of a pool, your experience is probably pretty much the same as that of someone who stayed under a little longer and completely drowned. (Except for the waking up later and reporting the experience part.) Tried drowning, didn’t like it, learned to swim.

  25. Thank you for putting this information out!!!

    I really encourage all to read the original article from Mario Vittone and the reader comments to it. Very jarring and sobering accounts, but very good information. What I got out from them, in addition to the information above, is that when the drowning instinct takes over the person is compelled to climb to safety. So, if you try to rescue them, they may very well drown you too in the process when they instinctively start to climb you and push you under in the process. So, use a floatation device or something else for them to grab on to instead of yourself!!!

  26. My greatgrandfather was saved from the sea by my greatuncle. they never spoke to each other after that.He told me,later that he was furious with him cos he took away the most beautiful and serene moment in his life away from him….
    02 starvation is a hellova drug

  27. I wonder if a yoga practitioner, being practiced at managing air hunger, would be able to override the programming.

    1. I have reprimanded by pool atendants for doing za-zen in the pool. Not drowning but cultuivating awareness. Asanas underwater lend an (achhem!) fluidity to the body. any hoo have you met my mate dave

      Learn to swim young man Learn to SWIM!

  28. Around 1969/70 ago when I was young – about 11 or 12 – I’m reasonably (but not entirely) sure that I rescued a drowning kid of about 6 or 7 in our busy local outdoor swimming pool on a summer afternoon. He was bobbing vertically, arms outstretched, mouth underwater, not panicking, eyes big (if I remember right). I hadn’t had any lifesaving training but thought it looked odd, so I got in and pushed him to the side and helped him out of the pool, something I’ve never done before or since.

    He seemed all right and ran off to his family rather than collapsing in an exhausted heap, so quite possibly he wasn’t drowning but went off to complain that some big bully had pushed him out of the pool for no good reason while he was enjoying himself pretending to be a spacewalking astronaut, who knows.

    I go swimming most weeks these days and am quite good (one-time captain of my school swimming team) but in the middle of my not-very-extensive sessions of ploughing up and down I do like to just float in the water, or sit on the bottom holding my breath, or push off from the side and try and get as far down the pool as possible without using a stroke and drifting to the surface like a dead man, so I wonder if the lifeguards (who are swapped every 30 mins) get concerned. They never question me or ask me to stop, though.

  29. i always wonder how one ends up in such a situation, then i remember that one time i swam out in the mediterranean,then decided i had enough and turned around, only to notice that there was a strong as fuck current seemingly trapping me in place. it was some shitty beach in turkey without lifeguards, man literally just a bit further out and i wouldnt have had the power to get overcome that current. stupid currents. you wont feel them until you turn against them. thinking about it i think i never panicked so much in my life.

  30. Keep in mind that once you attempt to rescue someone, the Instinctive Drowning Response can stop once they aren’t in direct threat of drowning. This frequently results in the victim attempting to get as far out of the water as possible, typically by forcing you as far underwater as possible and holding you there with as much adrenaline fueled strength as they can muster.

    1. You are absolutely right. If you haven’t been trained, you are likely to be drowned in the process of trying to help.

      Reach, throw, tow, row, go…anyone else have that burned in their brain?

      1. @ chgoliz “Reach, throw, tow, row, go…anyone else have that burned in their brain?”

        Not exactly in that format, but I do remember being told that the first thing you try to do is remain at a distance on solid ground and try to reach the victim with a long pole or a ring on a string first, and the last thing you do and only if all else has failed is to get in the water yourself and go up very close (and then, if I remember right, you even have to be prepared to punch the victim hard to stop him or her overwhelming you, though presumably if you’ve got to that state you’ve made some errors in the lead-up).

  31. At six years old, I had just learned how to swim and dive when a local kid strayed into the deep end of our pool. I remember seeing only her long braids floating as she was sinking to the bottom, struggling but not able to surface at all. I grabbed her by the hair and pulled her up, then a few of us kids watched her cough up water and vomit at the side of the pool. We never told our parents because we were certain that nearly drowning was a bad thing and that we’d all be punished and banned from the pool. Scary to think that this kid almost lost her life because we were all afraid to alert our parents. In fact, I don’t think I’ve told my mother that story to this day!

  32. I had a few lifeguard lessons in Boy Scouts. I’ve had one opportunity to use the rescue swim, and I’ll say that the drowning victim was doing exactly as Frank Pia says.

    I asked if he needed help and all he could do was silently nod, as he disappeared beneath the surface. Not even a splash.

  33. Thankfully I was a swimmer for part of my time in high school, and I received some excellent drown-proofing training in the Navy. Which is also where I found out that the outward signs of drowning are completely different if you’re face up on a table with your ankles and wrists tied down.

  34. Thank you for posting this. I ran across it the other week over on FB and re-posted. The article helped me understand the death of another swimmer years ago who was simply treading water when I saw them (or so I thought).

  35. Anon: All the more reason why swimming lessons and water survival lessons should be required in schools.

    Very true. I’ve read in places like Indonesia and Malaysia when a ferry sinks often most of those who survive are westerners, because they were taught to swim, but most Indonesians and Malaysians aren’t.

  36. While tree planting in rural Canada we slept in tents near a deep fast moving creek. Early one morning when I got up to water a tree, a foreman was also awake going for a paddle in creek.

    Within seconds of getting in water had panicked look in eyes and started going under. I jumped into water, he clutching and grabbing at me, then suddenly stopped and disappeared. I reached down into water and grabbed his sweater. By this time he was motionless.

    Then i started experiencing what this article describes. I started going under, it was surprisingly fast. I was under water looking up at glassy surface, and thought ‘this is it’, which spurred some survival mode as I thrust myself up to surface and screamed ‘heeeeeellppp’ like a banshee, went under, came back up, and did it again. Apparently this woke up entire camp.

    Luckily, one of the guys was a lifeguard. He swam out, put me in vise grip hold and hauled me to shore. When i could get my footing, I fought my way out of his grip, and pulled the foreman up to surface face up and not breathing, yelling at them to save him not me. The looks on their faces, as they all thought I was the (only) one drowning.

    CPR was applied to foreman on shore and in flatbed of pickup truck on way to doctor 40 minutes away. Miraculously, he was revived and back at work camp later that day and we had hell of a drink up that night.

    My advice: learn proper way to save a drowning swimmer. Learn that vise grip hold. Otherwise you may drown yourself too.

  37. I recently found an excellent article on this by Mario Vitonne (at MarioVitonne.com) and put it up on my site, TheLiquidBetsy. It goes through a lot of the information here plus some startling stats:
    – More than have of the kids who drown, do it within 25 yards of an adult.
    – 10% do it with with THE ADULT ACTUALLY WATCHING THEM.

    The Link is here: http://theliquidbetsy.com/2010/07/know-the-face-of-drowning-i-bet-not/

    This is so very important, recently two 2 y.o. twins died here in MA.

    Perhaps if we educate just a little more, we save more lives…

  38. “The best way I can describe it was that he was trying to climb onto my shoulders. Not a good situation for me.”

    This, and Burzmali’s comment, sound a lot like what happened to me as a kid. I couldn’t have been older than seven, and I don’t know how far into the drowning process I was, I just remember yanking my older sister (also close to drowning) down to lift myself up so I could breathe. Terrifying.

  39. Jesus- Of course I post and then see Mario is the source material!

    Mario- My bad! You’ve done a fantastic service by posting this information. I’ve gotten some great emails of people forwarding it on…. it is truly valuable and necessary information!

    Can you tell I’m a fan?

  40. The last line of Mario’s full article is so true:

    “And parents: children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.”

  41. Anyone else reading this finding themselves breathing deeper? Getting the precious oxygen in your lungs, even though you are nowhere near water?

    Reminds me of the time I came home from watching Jaws. I was in the basement in my landlocked state thousands of miles from the ocean and was still scared. I checked the toilet tank just to be sure…

  42. Unfortunately no amount of training makes up for just not paying attention. I almost drowned in a wave pool as a kid (behaving EXACTLY as described here) with ~10 lifeguards on duty. Luckily some lady in the pool asked me if I needed help and I was able to nod my head “yes”.

  43. This sounds about right to me. I remember jumping into a fast moving river (not wise if you’re a poor swimmer) and being shoved downstream and the only thing I could focus on was keeping my head above water to take breaths, no thrashing or shouting. Luckily I was able to keep my head above water and reached a shallow before I ran out of energy but I’ll never forget that moment and the panic I felt as it was happening.

  44. Never learned to swim; saw my little brother drowning (my uncle pulled him out) when I was probably all of 7 or 8. Self taught myself to float – and well! – in my 30’s though (much older now), at a public pool, in the shallow end, heh (yeah, I could eventually float my way slowly across the deep end).


    I was 17 or so, and decided to learn to swim; talked my best friend into it (his neighbor had a pool).

    I made it across the pool once; about half way back I slipped under. I pushed through to the top 2-3 times, and – as I recall – got a breath in and a “help” out each time. I didn’t panic; but I was VERY scared.

    Eventually my friend realized I wasn’t joking (after, he told me he thought I was playing, because I’d done so well swimming across the pool), jumped in, grabbed me, and pulled me out …so maybe that response doesn’t always work the same way with everyone: I instantly went limp when he grabbed me, as I had read that was the best thing to do) …at no point were my thoughts not crystal clear; but I could see him watching, so I didn’t lose hope either.

    End of swimming lesson.

    Thanks again, Steve.

  45. To #59, it is unusual to revive a fresh water drowning victim while salt water drowning victims may recover completely even when they have cardiac arrest. The colder the water, the more success. The reason why is that the fresh water drowning victim absorbs a lot of water via the lungs and suffers from hemolysis of red cells because of all the fresh water. The osmotic pressure of salt water prevents the absorption of water.

    I once was standing by a neighbor’s pool talking when I looked down and saw my three year old daughter looking up at me from the bottom of the pool. She had been standing next to me and my wife. She made no sound as she went in. Fortunately, we saw her before she took a breath and grabbed her.

  46. Thank you for publishing this.

    The reason this is SUCH useful information is that many people who are capable of performing lifesaving duties may freeze, holding themselves back for a few seconds while over-assessing the situation, in large part out of a desire to avoid looking like a geek or a busy-body if he/she began a rescue that really wasn’t needed.

    Just knowing that you may have to decide whether to act or not in a big hurry — and without the visual clues that would make drowning obvious — should impel some would-be rescuers to go ahead and take the risk of looking foolish. And that’s a good thing.

  47. I worked several summers as a lifeguard at different lakes. I had several rescues that all fit the profile described. One was so paniced that he didn’t realize that the water was shallow enough he could have stood. I was standing 3 feet from him, and never a peep nor thrash from him.

  48. I know a couple whose 2 year old son drowned during a beach vacation. I don’t think they have ever forgiven themselves. But I know them to be loving and responsible parents – they have 3 other children – and given some of the “near death” stories people have told here, I have no doubt it happened very very quickly and undoubtably when the parents were preoccupied with the other kids. The mother’s sister was also with them, so you had 3 adults and 4 kids on the beach, but anybody with kids knows that disaster can happen the second you look away. Since that tragedy, I have been less quick to judge people who lose children because of some accident that happens right under their noses. Some of those parents may be “bad” or careless, but many are not.

  49. Long time ago I was a lifeguard on a beach on the cold water side of Massachusetts.

    Our best life saving device bar none was a large Hawaiian style surf board – 8 feet or so. Incredibly fast, much faster than swimming or rowing the row boat. And when you got there, the board could easily hold two people, so if the victim was still grabby, you just shoved the board at them. It could easily hold up two people.

    Don’t understand why they aren’t more widely used.

    Most of the people we tried to save weren’t drowning, but you could never tell. Basically, if they weren’t swimming steadily we got suspicious. Almost disappointed when you got there and they didn’t need help.

  50. What I remember from lifesaving classes was to approach the swimmer in distress, dive, find their legs, turn them to be at their back, and ascend hand-over-hand while, with strong grips, keeping them facing away. Then, secure them with a one-armed cross grip (across the torso) and tow them to safety using the sidestroke. If things went bad, dive for the bottom so they’d release. Haven’t had to verify the concept.

    Also, cultivate an ability to punch through moments of disbelief–the shock at the unexpected. Just because no one else is responding doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t.

  51. I teach swimming lessons to small children (in Manhattan). I can’t tell you the number of times a three-to-five-year-old has told me “I’m drowning!” I always tell them ‘if you’re talking, you’re not drowning.’

    I know I’m a language geek, but I HATE the way people mis-use language about swimming around children. I’ll have a kid kicking across the pool with two flotation devices (barbell and backpack) and the parents will coo, ‘oh you’re swimming.’

    The kid is not swimming! If another adult asks the kid, ‘can you swim?’, the kid will say ‘yes.’ This is so unsafe!

    I always try to model for the parents, saying things like “You’re kicking!” “Or you can really go with that floatie!” Or even more general, good work and good try. But the parents never notice and I worry that telling Manhattan moms and dads that they’re putting their kid at risk of drowning will cost me my job.

    Don’t tell a kid they can swim until they can kick twice their bodylength. I would say not until they can breathe on their own, but some kids seem to swim for a long time before they can do that. Which is another reason to NEVER trust that a kid that says they can swim until you’ve tested them (in the water, no farther than an armslength away) yourself. Including checking to see if they can breathe. And how easily – a small kid who can only kind of breathe is going to have big trouble when there’s a lot of kids around splashing and making waves.

    Also with little swimmers keep an eye out for signs of cold and exhaustion. You can get hypothermia in 80 degree water and most kids’ bodies are worse at heat retention than adults’.

  52. When I was much younger, my niece was jumping into my arms as I stood in the shallow end. I was told my my cousin that she could swim very well. So when she decided to run over to the deep end and jump in, I was not alarmed….at first.

    I watched her tread water for a minute or so until her head leaned back, and she dipped under the surface. I immediately jumped out, and back in to save her from drowning. The first 60 seconds, she showed no signs of panic or anxiety. So it is possible to watch someone drown an not know until they are out of gas.

    Sad part was the lifeguard was on duty and didn’t recognize her drowning before I did. They actually praised me for my quick reaction and ability to think clearly in a desperate situation.

    That lifeguard was no longer a lifeguard the next day, and probably still hurts when he chews his food!


    Reluctant Lifeguard!

  53. After reading these comments, it made me realize just how close I came to drowning two weeks ago.

    I met up with some old friends in Austin, TX and we went tubing down the river in New Braunsfels.

    I went down a small drop and flipped backwards out of my tube. I managed to take a deep breath before I went under. The current kept pushing me under and I was afraid I would never be able to signal for help.

    I managed to get the attention of a friend and they said it was like something out of 28 Days Later. They said the look on my face was pure terror.

    If that wasn’t scary enough, I almost drown as well at the end getting off of my tube.

    I noticed everyone hopping out of their tubes to get to the stairs to get out. I assumed that it was really shallow so I hopped out as well.

    I immediately went under and I knew for sure I was going to drown. Some how, I was able to keep my head above water for a bit. I was trying to tread water and stay alive.

    There was this guy that put his hand out and tried to help me. I couldn’t respond to him or even attempt to grab his hand. I could only stare at him with panic in my eyes. He some how realized this and lean over to grab me and pull me up.

    After almost dying twice that day, why oh why didn’t I just tell my friends I couldn’t swim?

  54. I nearly drowned at the age of 4 after being knocked over by an ocean wave. I remember feeling at peace and seeing the waves wash over me until someone pulled me out.

Comments are closed.