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Drowning doesn’t look like drowning

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By Mario Vittone

The new captain jumped from the deck, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the couple swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed, but now they were just standing, neck-deep, on the sand bar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard.

”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not 10 feet away, their 9-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”
How did this captain know, from 50 feet away, what the father couldn’t recognize from just 10? Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. Until his daughter cried a tearful “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound.

As a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I wasn’t surprised at all by this story. Drowning is almost always a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing, and yelling that dramatic conditioning (television) prepares us to look for is rarely seen in real life. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us), you should make sure that you and your crew know what to look for whenever people enter the water.
The Instinctive Drowning Response – so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., a veteran lifeguard and psychologist who is renowned for his research on water rescue – is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.

To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic from the surface drowning can be, consider this: It is the No. 2  cause of accidental death in children ages 15 and under (just behind vehicle accidents); of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult; and in 10 percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.

Drowning doesn’t look like drowning.

In the Coast Guard’s On Scene magazine (Fall 2006 issue), Pia described the instinctive drowning response like this:

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

This doesn’t mean that a person who is yelling for help and thrashing isn’t in real trouble – they are experiencing aquatic distress. Not always present before the instinctive drowning response, aquatic distress doesn’t last long – but unlike true drowning, these victims can still assist in their own rescue. They can grab lifelines, throw rings, etc.

Look for these other signs of drowning when persons are in the water:

  • Head low in the water, mouth at water level.
  • Head tilted back with mouth open.
  • Eyes glassy and empty, unable to focus.
  • Eyes closed.
  • Hair over forehead or eyes.
  • Not using legs, body vertical in the water.
  • Hyperventilating or gasping.
  • Trying to swim in a particular direction, but not making headway.
  • Trying to roll over on the back.
  • Appear to be climbing an invisible ladder.

So if a crew member falls overboard and everything looks OK – don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning. They may just look like they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure: Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all, they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. And, parents – children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you get to them and find out why.

Mario Vittone (mariovittone.com) is a former USCG helicopter rescue swimmer. He has developed training courses in search-and-rescue tactics and open ocean survival for municipal rescue teams and the military. His areas of expertise include immersion hypothermia, drowning, sea survival and safety at sea. Comments are welcome below.

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2 thoughts on “Drowning doesn’t look like drowning

  1. Storm Higgo

    Thanks for the excellent article. Being a dad to 2 young children who love the water as much as I do has made me much more aware of the warning signs in the water. This article is one I will be reading again and again.

  2. Moody Jim

    Mr Vittone:
    Great article on the signs of early/near drowning, thank you. We live in Destin, FL where a local water attraction plus current has resulted in 4 recent drownings that might have been avoided with your information. BTW, thank you also for for USCG service. Former Medical Corps with USAF🇺🇸

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