Summertime is water recreation time, and with water comes danger. Last
winter, I took a "Boater Safety" class sponsored by my local Coast
Guard Auxiliary, and I'd like to share some of the information on
drowning -- recognition, prevention, and giving aid that they shared with me.
Drowning: It's Not Just For Swimmers
One of the first and most surprising statistics I learned was that over 60
percent of drownings in America are non-swimming situations. They are dock
accidents, hunting accidents, boating mishaps, and other situations where the
victim didn't intend to be in the water. From the Coast Guard's perspective,
there are three types of drowning: swimming, non-swimming, and boating. My
class focused on the latter, but provided useful information for all three
No Waving, No Yelling
There is a common misconception that drowning victims will yell for help and
wave their arms to attract attention. Not only is this untrue, neither waving
nor yelling is physiologically possible when an individual is in the process of
When the body senses it is out of control in water, two things happen
instinctively and unavoidably:
1) The arms flail up and down laterally in an attempt to force the head above
2) The esophagus instinctively closes to prevent aspirating water.
The first instinct is as inefficient and exhausting as it is unavoidable. It
can only be maintained for 20-to-60 seconds on average, and it precludes the
"waving one's arms in the air" we think of in caricatures of
drowning. The second instinct, while effective at preventing water aspiration,
also prevents yelling to alert someone who might be able to help.
Assisting A Drowning Victim
Unless you are both an excellent swimmer and have taken lifesaving training,
it's a bad idea to attempt a swimming rescue if you see someone drowning.
Non-swimming rescues are a better idea, and everyone who plans to be around
bodies of water should learn the options, which include throwing rescues,
extension rescues, and wading rescues.
First, throwing rescues. If throwing a rope or ring or other lifesaving
device, remember two things. First, step on the other end of the rope to avoid throwing
the entire device, rope and all. Second, the victim, in full throes of the
instinctive drowning responses described above, cannot "reach" for a
thrown device. Using an underhand toss, aim to place the device beneath the
victim's laterally thrashing arm or hand, such that the flailing arm will
naturally contact the device in its arc.
Similarly, if attempting an extension rescue, where you are in closer
proximity to the victim and can reach her with an oar, branch, piece of
clothing, or other short extension, direct the item beneath a thrashing arm.
As a last resort, if you can wade toward the victim and safely retain your
own balance and footing while extending your arm or another device, remember to
lean your body toward shore at all times. Grasp the victim by the wrist if you
are able to reach her with an arm, leaning firmly away and toward share,
pulling slowly and keeping your own footing and balance paramount. Sort of like
the airline flight attendants' warning to "secure your own oxygen mask before
helping those around you," you won't do anybody any good if you both get
An Ounce Of Prevention...
Of course, prevention is the best course of action. There are no magic bullets
for preventing water-related injuries and drowning, just commonsense things
that bear repeating.
1. Be alert
2. Use the buddy system
3. Never swim/boat/recreate
on or near the water alone
4. Learn to swim
5. Use PFDs (personal flotation
6. Don't rely on air-filled toys as safety devices
7. Pay close, undistracted attention to children and non- swimmers
8. Limit or avoid alcohol, and;
9. Don't get over-tired.
If we all do our part, we can contribute to the safety and enjoyment of our
friends and families when recreating on or near the water.
Sally O'Neal is a freelance travel and outdoor writer who lives in
Washington State. Her father recently lost his best friend in an
alcohol-related boating accident that will forever alter the lives of both the
victim's and the perpetrator's families. She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.