Here’s a sobering fact: drowning doesn’t look the way most people imagine it does. Flailing arms, desperate splashes, and shrill yelling—these are all things that you might have seen in the movies, but that doesn’t happen in real life. Summer is packed with awesome water-based activities like swimming, stand up paddle boarding, boating, and canoeing. For any of these activities, drowning is a real risk. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should play it safe by sitting quietly indoors during the best days of summer. What it does mean is that you—and other members of your party—should brush up on drowning safety tips. Spoiler alert: even if you can swim, it can happen to you.
Recognize the Instinctive Drowning Response
Water safety specialists have coined the term ‘instinctive drowning response’ to identify what drowning really looks like. When someone is drowning, they can’t shout out for help: their body automatically prioritizes breathing over anything else, making it impossible for them to scream.
A person who is drowning often cannot control their movements—that means they can’t always grab rescue equipment, move towards another person, or wave their hands. When a person is in the advanced stages of drowning, they are virtually silent and making very few movements. This is when you need to act quickly.
If You’re Unsure, Double Check
In the early stages of drowning, it might just look like a person is casually treading water. Look for signs like closed or unfocused eyes; a tilted head (either back or forward); hair covering the eyes; or looking like the person is trying to swim somewhere, but is getting nowhere.
If you’re unsure, verbally check with your buddy to make sure they’re okay. If they don’t respond or they just stare at you blankly, act fast.
Don’t Rely on Your Ear for Kids
When your kids are involved in water activities, you need to keep an eye on them, not just an ear. Supervisors sometimes think that they will hear the child shouting for help or splashing if they’re in trouble, when in reality, they likely won’t hear anything at all. Instead of listening for suspicious sounds, you should learn to recognize that silence is the most suspicious sound of all.
Get Help and Act Quickly
If you’ve identified that somebody is drowning, call for help immediately. Gathering a small crew of helpers, if possible, will help improve the victim’s chances. Have one person call 911. As a general guideline, you might have up to one minute to help a struggling adult and only 20 seconds to help a struggling child.
Rescue the Victim
In the early stages of drowning, it might be possible to rescue the victim by reaching an object out to them or using a throw rescue device for them to grab on to.
As the severity of the drowning increases, however, the victim might not be able to control their movements. Have the strongest swimmer swim out to the victim, with others nearby to help as backup—the victim’s involuntary, desperate movements could put the rescuer danger (approach the victim from behind, if possible). The rescuer should always bring a buoy or whatever floating device is available.
Begin First Aid
Assess the situation and begin first aid. Specialized first aid might be needed, so seek out help if available. Consider potential causes for the drowning, like a heart attack, a seizure, or intoxication.
If you are in a situation where you are by yourself with the victim, you need to put your own safety first. Attempt any rescue methods that you can perform safely, but do not put yourself in a dangerous position, or you will likely end up as a victim, too.
Wear a Life Jacket
Sure, you might be an all-star swimmer—but for the sake of those that love you, wear a life jacket when you’re on a boat. People often underestimate the distances they would need to swim if there was an emergency, and swimming requires a lot of energy. Cold water makes the situation even more difficult. So do yourself a favor, and don a life jacket.